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Tiger, Sideways


Rodford Edmiston

        "Hold still!" fussed Chirikitt, as he made final adjustments to Rowark's clothing. "We can't have the Guild of Wizards' Council representative looking untidy!"

        Rowark sighed at his apprentice's good-natured chiding and did as told. Squirrels were hyperactive by nature; that was why they rarely made good wizards. Though Chirikitt could control himself admirably when working, he made up for this restraint by being even more - well - Squirrelly the rest of the time. Chirk, finally satisfied that every fold of his teacher's ceremonial robe of rank was properly draped, turned to the dresser. Reverently, he lifted Rowark's amulet, and placed it around the Canine's neck. The Squirrel stepped back and considered his work for a moment, head cocked to one side, then nodded.

        "It should do," he commented. "Mind you, if this were something important, like a formal dinner among my people, you would be considered horribly rumpled, not to mention decades out of style, but considering how the rest of those stuffy bureaucrats dress, you should pass."

        "I'll be sure and tell Leader Browlara your low opinion of his clothing," said Rowark, lifting an eyebrow.

        "You wouldn't," gasped Chirk, his whiskers stilled with shock.

        Rowark smiled and turned to leave, his cape swirling behind him.

        He headed for the south entrance. This was the closest to his small set of rooms, and near a place where he could hire a ride to the governance building. He was almost to the heavy, iron-bound oak doors when the amulet on his chest throbbed once, then set up a tingling that put his teeth on edge. That could only mean one thing. The pages and apprentices in the hallway and the guards at the door were astonished to see one of the senior wizards of the Guild suddenly whirl around and set off at a full run.

        The amulet had been created by Rowark's grandfather, nearly a century earlier. It was made from a large reddish quartz stone set in brass, and looked like a gaudy piece of obviously cheap jewelry, which is what Grandfather Harowl had intended. The canny old Wolf didn't want it to be stolen by a thief who might think it was a valuable piece of ornamentation. The fact that it was actually beyond material price was obvious only to those mystically trained. Its most important function was to act as an alarm for the node point around which the guildhall - and the city itself - had been built. Just now it had signaled that an unauthorized use of the node was in progress, and that could mean great trouble. Especially since the particular signal Rowark had felt meant that the node was being used as the focus for a portal. That meant he might find anything waiting for him.

        Rowark entered the central hall just as a burst of light occurred on the ceremonial dais in the center. Other appointed guardians of the node had either already arrived or were hurrying in as Rowark paused to see just what was going on. When the glare faded, he could make out an upright form on the dais, where none had been before.

        "A human!" someone cried, and indeed it seemed that their uninvited guest was one.

        Rowark had dealt extensively with human traders, and had gained a fair level of skill at reading the expressions on their flat, naked faces. This one, as he looked around the great hall, seemed to be completely befuddled. He stood without protest as a pair of Bear guards came up beside him, grabbing either arm. Rowark was surprised as he noticed how tall the human was, something he could not determine until he had the Bears for comparison. The human looked at the guards for a moment, then smiled a bit as he gently took hold of their harnesses and lifted them both off the ground. Then, just as gently, he set them down again. The Bears, to their credit, maintained their hold. To Rowark, the event seemed more like a child showing off than a threatening display.

        Chief Monitor Brawkarrl entered the room and moved gracefully to the dais, where he examined the prisoner closely for a moment. He then asked the intruder several questions, first in the Fur tongue, then in Tradetalk and Eastern. The stranger replied in a language none there had ever heard before. While this was taking place, Rowark raised the amulet and peered at the stranger through the ruddy quartz stone in its center. He was amazed at what he saw; the human glowed with magic. Not just in bright spots, as might be expected from someone carrying magical items, but all over, as if he, himself, were enchanted.

        Brawkarrl, having decided that the stranger had no language in common with anyone there, turned to Rowark.

        "It seems that we will need a translation spell to talk to this human." Brawkarrl considered for a moment, idly scratching his already scruffy neck with his left hand, then turned to look at Rowark, one brow cocked expectantly. Though the Canine was technically senior to Rowark in matters concerning the node, he was only recently appointed to his post. He was wise enough to realize when to ask for advice from those more experienced, and Rowark had been a full wizard thirty years to Brawkarrl's ten. It was only that Rowark was considered more valuable as someone generally available for troubleshooting that had kept him from being appointed Chief Monitor.

        "I am supposed to be at the Governance Council very shortly," said Rowark. "I suggest you have Master Shrowwl or my apprentice query this human. Better yet, both of them."

        "I would rather you handle this, at least in a supervisory capacity," said Brawkarrl. He thought for a moment. "When will you be back?"

        "Not until after noon, at the earliest."

        "I will have our guest held in a cell until you can see to him," Brawkarrl decided. "You may question him after you return. Until then, I will have your chief apprentice keep an eye on this human, in case there's more to this that it seems."

        Rowark groaned inwardly about this extra duty, but to Brawkarrl he made a ritual show of submission as acknowledgment, tilting his head back and slightly to one side to expose his throat. That settled, Rowark trotted off. If he were lucky, he might just be on time after all.

        He wasn't lucky. In fact, an upset wagon blocking the street he chose made him even later. Seeing that the crowd of gawkers was slowing the workers who were trying to right the spill, Rowark paid his driver, sighed and set off on foot. When he finally arrived at the governance building, he hurried into the cabinet chamber ungracefully, attracting criticizing stares from some of those present, including senior council Rrandril. The aggressive Canine gave Rowark a glare that made resentment flare in the wizard. He controlled himself, even to the point of baring his throat to Rrandril the minimum amount necessary to avoid the appearance of presenting a challenge.

        "Trouble at the Academy, Council Rowark?" asked Leader Browlara.

        "I'm afraid so, Leader," said the wizard. He bared his throat to Browlara, and more than just the amount required by propriety. Not only had Browlara done him the courtesy of assuming some justified reason for his delay, Rowark just plain liked the Canine.

        Rowark seated himself with as much decorum as he could salvage, and Browlara started the meeting.

        "To review, the human nation to the east, the Empire of the Great Water, is expanding in this direction," Browlara told them, his smooth, deep voice calm and confident. "For the past few years we have enjoyed a modest success dealing with the human traders who ply their wares in the lands east of here, but they are being squeezed out by the Empire, through regulations and taxes. There have also been a number of clashes between the Empire's citizens and some of our own people. The Empire claims that the land we hunt and farm on in the foothills is theirs by ancient treaty, and that they will take it by force if we don't give it to them. For the past three years it has seemed inevitable that there would be war between our peoples.

        "We have been trying to negotiate a treaty with the Empire, but so far this has not been successful. Most of our attempts were met with blunt refusal to even talk. Now, though, I have received a proposal for a face-to-face meeting between representatives of our realm and theirs." Browlara paused to look at the twelve council members, driving home the weight of this news. "I propose that we accept their offer, and assemble a party to attend their conference."

        That caused a stir, but only a minor one. The news of the invitation had already spread through the upper levels of the government, and it had been most members' guess that Browlara would favor this move. He had always preferred talk to fighting.

        "Who is to be on this team?" rumbled Grrumma, one of the three Bear councils.

        "That is for you twelve to decide," Browlara told them. "I will call another meeting the day after tomorrow at this time, and you should have chosen four representatives by then. They will set out for the site of the negotiations, accompanied by an equal number of guards, two weeks from today."

        There was other business for the Council to handle, but it was obvious that the treaty negotiations were foremost on the collective mind of the group. Perhaps that was why the rest of the work passed quickly, with a minimum of argument and pontification. Even the news of the strange intruder at the Guildhall evoked little reaction. Rowark, a bit irritated at this lack of attention, decided that the other members just didn't know enough about the node to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. The meeting broke up shortly after noon, and Rowark hurried back to his quarters.

        "It's about time!" exclaimed Chirikitt, as he caught Rowark changing from his ceremonial garb to something more practical. "You ran off and left me to deal with that creature that appeared here this morning without even informing me about the matter yourself! I had to cancel my classes, so that I could make the initial examination for Brawkarrl!"

        Rowark, in the middle of removing his tunic, paused and winced. He had completely forgotten that Chirk was now teaching the initiates in several subjects. His own schedule was so full that he sometimes failed to appreciate just how busy some of the other wizards and apprentices were these days.

        "When you're finished changing join me in the workshop," said Chirikitt, already moving toward the side door. "I have something to show you about our guest."

        Rowark arrived a few minutes later, dressed much more casually. The curtains were closed and the only light was from the huge quartz skrying sphere on the round table in the center of the room. Even as he shut the door, Rowark could see that the scene in the crystal was the cell containing the strange human. Rowark made his way easily through the dark and crowded but familiar room to the table and sat beside Chirikitt.

        "Now, what's so important?"

        "This." The Squirrel half closed his eyes and quietly murmured a spell, while passing his hands over the globe in a series of smooth gestures.

        The image suddenly shifted to show everything outlined in colors. Rowark started; the spell was one every user of magic knew, a way of showing the pattern of mana around objects. It was a quick check for the presence of magical items or active spells, as well as nodes. That wasn't what surprised the mage. What it revealed about the human was. He glowed like a gem in sunlight, a rainbow of shifting colors extending out from his form to fill the entire cell, and probably beyond.

        "I saw something like that this morning, when I looked at him through the amulet," mused Rowark. "I knew then that there was something strange about him, but this is incredible!"

        "What do you think it is?" Chirikitt asked quietly, his voice conveying more than a touch of awe. "I have used this spell hundreds of times and never seen such a thing. Not even the most powerful wizards produce such an effect."

        "Chirk, remember your basic philosophy lessons," said Rowark, assuming his teacher mode. "What is the difference between a wizard and a god?"

        "'A wizard uses magic,'" Chirikitt quoted. "'A god is magic.'" As the import of what he had said sank in the Squirrel stiffened, his eyes going wide and his tail bushing out. "You aren't saying that we have a god in our dungeon?!"

        "No, not a god," said Rowark, leaning forward to examine the image in the sphere. "A god incognito would be less obvious, and one appearing openly wouldn't be so forbearing. Perhaps a demigod or, as we first thought, a demon in human form."

        "So how do we find out?" asked Chirikitt, expecting to be shown some advanced procedure for determining the true nature of their visitor.

        "Why, we ask him," Rowark replied with a smile.

        The human sat up on the straw pallet as they entered the cell, but aside from watching them closely took no other action. Rowark waved the guard out, over his objections. As Chirk stood by, the Canine cast a basic translation spell. The stranger's eyes narrowed for a moment, then widened in apparent recognition as the spell neared its end.

        "Can you understand me now?" Rowark asked.

        "Yes, thank you," said the human. "I've got to learn how to work that; it's just too handy to do without."

        "You are a wizard, then?" asked Chirikitt, his curiosity and impetuous nature causing him to break in.

        "No, but I can work a few minor spells."

        Rowark, meanwhile, had taken the opportunity to sit on the small stool the cell was equipped with. Once the human was finished, he brought the inquiry back on trail.

        "I am Rowark and this is my apprentice, Chirikitt," said the wizard. "As I am sure you can appreciate, we are anxious to know who and what you are and how you came to be here."

        "The how is a bit complicated," sighed the stranger. "My name, by the way, is Tiger. I was sent here by a wizard who thought he was returning me to my home. As to what I am, well, magic only recently entered my world and by accident I received a large dose of it; a seed of magic which took root and grew to become part of me. This has given me some interesting and useful abilities but it has also caused me some great troubles."

        "And where are you from?"

        "Are you familiar with the theory of infinite possibilities?" the stranger asked. "That is, that for every potential outcome of an event there is a separate world, which follows the results of one unique outcome."

        "I am aware of that theory," Rowark said, nodding. "Do you come from one of those worlds?"

        "Yes," said Tiger, looking relieved. "One of the problems I mentioned before is that because of the magic in me I tend to get caught up in certain types of spells. I have been summoned to other planes as a demon several times."

        Rowark considered this carefully. The human's words had a ring of truth, especially when coupled with his weary attitude. Still, he could be a demon, trying to convince them otherwise.

        "But how did you come to be here!?" demanded Chirk, as the pause lengthened.

        "A wizard in the last world I involuntarily visited offered to send me home," Tiger explained. "He wasn't familiar with my world, but said he could send me to the place that I was most closely attuned to."

        "And you came here!?"

        "Well, my Gift grants me certain abilities similar to those possessed by a number of unintelligent creatures on my world," said Tiger, baring his teeth in a fierce grin. "Creatures which some of you resemble. I have heightened senses and an empathy with animals, among other things. Although I haven't seen any cats here."

        "There are Cats," Rowark told him. "They are part of the Four Species of Fur that make up our culture."

        "Four? Is that all?"

        "Our people were originally created by a group of human sorcerers as servants. Slaves, really. Originally there were six kinds of Fur: Dog, Cat, Wolf, Oxen, Bear and Squirrel." Rowark's gaze grew distant as he recalled his people's history. "Eventually we - our ancestors, that is - rebelled, escaped and fled here. The Oxen didn't survive the journey and the Wolves and Dogs interbred and became the Canines."

        "Fascinating," said Tiger, eyes wide. "A whole civilization made up of beings created from animals by human magic."

        The human heaved a great sigh and shook his head.

        "However, that doesn't change the fact that I will need your help in returning home." Tiger locked eyes with Rowark. "I have friends who are probably looking for me, but even using magic to search, infinity is a large place. Either you, or some other wizard, will probably have to at least send out a beacon to let them know where I am."

        "I am afraid that no one here will be able to help you for quite some time," said Rowark, "While I regret having to leave you here, there just aren't enough people available. We are currently having a crisis with a neighboring human nation, and simply can't spare any skilled wizards. We will make sure that you are comfortable, but you must stay here until more urgent matters are settled."

        "If I have to," said Tiger, shaking his head and sighing again. "I understand your problem, but please try to understand mine. I dislike inactivity intensely. If you can't think of some way to keep me occupied I will have to come up with something on my own, and that might include escaping.

        "Just what is this crisis, anyway?" Tiger continued, changing the subject slightly. "Are you at war?"

        "Not yet," said Rowark. "Hopefully, it won't come to that, but there is a distinct possibility that it will." He went on to briefly explain the situation with the Empire.

        "Hmmm...," mused Tiger. "Sounds like you folks need arbitration."

        "What's that?" asked Chirk.

        "A go-between, a neutral third party, acts as mediator for the treaty talks," Tiger explained. "Both sides agree to allow this person or group of persons to break deadlocks, as well as receive confidential information which he must keep secret from the other side. Because the mediator has no interest in the proceedings except to see that they take place smoothly and peacefully, he, she or they can be objective, making decisions without personal involvement."

        "That sounds like just what we need," exclaimed Rowark, standing suddenly. "Will you accept the job?"

        "Me!?" yelped Tiger. "I'm not a negotiator! I don't know anything about this stuff!"

        "You did a good job, just now, of explaining how mediation works." Rowark rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Yessss... Our payment to you would be to send you home if you help us to arrange a peaceful settlement. You would have to charge the Waterers something, too, but I'm certain they would agree to any reasonable fee. Most of them are peaceful folk, who want war no more than we do. Its just that they and we have a hard time understanding each other."

        "All right, all right!" snapped Tiger, waving his arms. "I know when to yield to the inevitable. Arrange for me to get out of here and attend that treaty conference and I'll do my best."

        "I can't believe you are serious!" yelled Rrandril.

        "Do you have a better suggestion?" countered Rowark, bristling. He was tired, like everyone else in the chamber, and that was making him much less tolerant than usual. Browlara had ordered the windows opened earlier, and that helped to reduce the aggression scents in the air, but all the councils were still tense, on the edge of submission or a dominance display.

        "Enough," said Browlara, his voice calm but firm.

        For a moment, Rowark thought that Rrandril would challenge their leader, but he finally backed down. Rowark noted from the look in Browlara's eyes that the younger Canine's hesitation hadn't gone unnoticed.

        "It seems to me," Browlara continued more amenably, "that the best way to judge this creature's merit is to bring him here and talk to him. Can you arrange that for this afternoon?"

        "Yes, Leader," said Rowark, enthusiastically. Admiration of Browlara's control made him grateful that he was leader, and not, say, the Squirrel Rikkrikk.

        "I suggest that this Tiger be put in chains for the visit," said Rrandril. "Even you, Rowark, said that you can't be sure that he is what he says. Put him in full shackles, with at least two Bear guards, before you escort him here, and have your apprentice come with them in case he tries something magical. It might take you and the Squirrel both to contain a demon."

        "I agree," said Browlara, after a moment's thought. "If he is here to cause us trouble, a meeting with the council would be the perfect time for him to try."

        "Yes, Leader," said Rowark. He didn't like the idea of putting the affable Tiger in bonds, but had to admit that the others were right to be cautious.

        Tiger had not objected to being riveted into the wrist and ankle bands, but Rowark could tell that he didn't like the process. Neither did Chirikitt; the voluble Squirrel chattered in protest during the entire process, and all the way out to the street. He didn't stop until Rowark ordered him to be quiet.

        They walked to the governance. What with the size of their procession and the short distance, Rowark decided that it would be foolish to hire a wagon big enough. Besides, Tiger had been saying that he wanted to see the city. The wizard realized his mistake when he saw people starting to gather along their path, to stare at the strange sight.

        Tiger walked as if the chains and armed escort didn't exist, swiveling his head excitedly to stare at everyone and everything, and constantly asking questions of Rowark and Chirk. Since he was the tallest human Rowark had ever met, his head nearly even with those of the Bears, he had a good view. Unfortunately, this also meant that people could see him clearly.

        It was inevitable that the crowding and shoving would lead to accidents. What Rowark didn't foresee was that one of those would involve a young Cat, a kitten really, falling under a moving wagon. There was a yell from the child, and a scream from his mother, but the driver, swiveled around to stare at Tiger and deafened by the crowd noise, didn't notice what had happened. It was doubtful that he could have stopped the heavy wagon in time, anyway. Those close to the child were paralyzed, caught unawares by the suddenness of the accident. Rowark tried to think of some spell he could cast that would save the youngster, but before he could even begin to find anything useful there was a blur of motion from between the guards.

        Tiger took a short run, then leapt toward the wagon in an impossible jump, the chains pulled taught by the rush of his movement. He landed and took two quick steps forward, grabbed the back of the wagon and heaved. The rear axle lifted from the ground, and Tiger staggered after it, walking the wheels forward until they were safely past the child. Then he dropped the wagon and sank to his knees, gasping for breath.

        Tiger and his escort finally managed to extricate themselves from the crowd and complete the journey to the governance. Once inside they were directed to Browlara's private chambers.

        "Thank you, guards," Browlara said, after greeting Rowark, Chirk and Tiger. "You may leave, now."

        The Bears looked at Browlara, at each other, then shrugged and left.

        "I think we can do without these, after what I saw out my window a few minutes ago," said Browlara, indicating the chains. "And I don't think we'll need a blacksmith to remove them, either."

        Tiger smiled, and took hold of the left wrist band with his right hand. With an effort, he tore it loose, the rivet head popping free and whurring into a corner. He quickly removed the other shackles, then draped the chains over a chair back.

        "You could have done that any time you wanted!" yelped Chirk. "You could have battered down the door to your cell and left whenever you felt like it!"

        "Yes," said Rowark, "why didn't you?"

        "I don't like scaring people," replied Tiger, quietly.

        "I, for one, am convinced that you are what you claim to be," said Browlara. "No demon would have thought to do what you did, just to allay suspicions. That sort of act simply wouldn't have occurred to a creature of darkness. By the way, you have my official gratitude, as ruler of our city, for saving that child's life.

        "And now, we had better go to the Council room," Browlara continued, turning to head briskly for the door. He gave them a wry grin over his shoulder. "After all, we shouldn't keep the honorable Rrandril waiting."

        "You can't be serious!" exclaimed Rrandril, nearly repeating his opening remarks from the morning's meeting. "I don't care what he did earlier, what sort of heroic feat he may have performed, we have no reason to believe that he can help us! By his own admission, this Tiger has no experience in arbitrating negotiations!"

        Tiger sat calmly in one of the chairs reserved for guests, Chirikitt beside him. The Squirrel's whiskers were twitching in indignation, but Tiger seemed to not even hear what was being said. Rowark knew, though, that he was angry, and not just by his scent. The human's laced fingers were pressed together so hard that they were white. Rowark wondered why Browlara allowed this harangue to go on, then realized that he was testing Tiger.

        "Tell me, human," said Rrandril, finally addressing Tiger directly, "how can you expect us to believe that you would help us against your own kind?"

        "My own kind," said Tiger wryly, in the quiet that followed Rrandril's challenge. He stood, leaned forward, placed his hands on the table and locked eyes with the Canine. "Tell me, Council, how many humans have you met who can do this?"

        There was an odd shimmer around Tiger for a moment, and then, suddenly, he was surrounded by the image of a large, striped cat. It stared at Rrandril with golden eyes, massive paws flexing slightly to reveal gleaming claws. There was a collective intake of breath from the Fur in the room; then that powerful manifestation was gone, leaving Rrandril, and nearly everyone else, awestruck.

        Even Rowark had felt the presence of the tiger that had visited them, despite his training in shielding against such effects. Besides himself and Chirk, only Browlara seemed to have resisted its influence, and even their leader's calm might have been pretense.

        "He is a demon!" gasped Rrandril, shaking himself free from the grip of the tiger.

        "No, I don't think so," said Rowark, pretending more calm than he felt.

        "Then what was that, wizard?" asked Browlara, just the slightest trace of a tremor in his voice.

        "Something like this, I would say." He concentrated for a moment, and strange, shimmering colors played around him in a sheath. The others in the room felt the same sort of effect they had noticed before, though less strongly.

        "It's a simple trick, one a lot of wizards learn early," said Rowark, relaxing and letting the colors fade. "You strengthen your aura, making it easily perceptible. Very impressive, but not good for much more than that. Tiger is simply far better at it than anyone else I have ever heard of."

        "I can see how that would be of use in maintaining order at negotiations," said Leerowll, one of the Cats, nervous laughter in her voice. "He certainly earned my vote."

        There was a chorus of agreement, even Rrandril joining with the others and assenting to the proposal. Browlara called in a clerk and dictated a formalized agreement, pausing occasionally to see if there were any suggestions for additions or changes. There were a few, but the final product was produced in short order. Browlara read the finished contract aloud, paused one final time to see if there were any questions, then signed it. He passed the parchment around the table, and each Council in turn added his or her signature. Then it went to Tiger, who wrote a series of large, flourishing characters.

        "It takes all that to say 'Tiger' in your language?" asked Chirk.

        "That's my legal name," the human told him, pointing to the signature. "'Tiger' is a descriptive nickname."

        "Honored Fur, I believe our business here is settled for the day," announced Browlara. "The delegates have been chosen, along with our mediator. You leave in two weeks."

        "Damn, deep-chested beast!" grumbled the horsemaster. The Bear tugged strenuously at the girth, to no avail. "It's long enough, but there's no hole where I need it!"

        "Here, let me try this," said Tiger. He pulled a red and silver object from his pocket and unfolded something from it. This he used to neatly ream a new hole in the leather.

        The horsemaster pulled the girth into place and buckled it, nodding his thanks.

        "What is that thing?" asked Chirk, from his perch on the corral fence.

        Seeing that the Bear was still occupied with adjusting the gear, Tiger moved over to the Squirrel and showed him the tool.

        "It's a Swiss Army knife," he explained. "See, it has two knife blades, three screwdrivers, a wire cutter, a can opener, and a reamer. That's what I used just now."

        While the fascinated Squirrel examined the knife, Tiger watched the Bear's struggles with the big roan. Finding a horse for Tiger had been a major problem. Although he wasn't all that heavy, his long legs required a tall mount. Since the Fur lived in the mountains, most of the local equines were stocky and short-legged.

        "Why do I need a horse?" he had grumped. "Even a normal man can outrun one, and I have a lot more stamina than that."

        "It's a matter of dignity," Chirk had said, firmly. "It just wouldn't do to have a proper mediator arrive on foot, like some beggar!"

        They finally obtained a large enough horse from a human trader who seemed inordinately eager to be rid of his animal. Once the horsemaster at the Guildhall started to work with him they discovered why; the stallion was willful, uncooperative and had a vicious streak. Increasing their problems was the fact that Tiger had only limited riding experience. Since there was so little time to get ready, there was no recourse but to put human and horse together and hope for the best.

        "He's ready," announced the horsemaster, looking impatiently at Tiger. "I just hope you are. I don't normally favor gelding, but this one deserves it."

        Tiger retrieved his knife and approached the stallion carefully. He mounted smoothly and took the reins from the Bear, who stepped smartly back.

        For the first few seconds it seemed that Red (named after his color and a friend of Tiger's) would tolerate Tiger's presence. Then, abruptly, he spun around and tried to wipe the human off against the fence. There followed a rather hectic battle, Red using every nasty trick a horse has for removing an unwanted rider, and Tiger hanging on solely due to his great strength. Finally, Tiger simply squeezed inward with his knees, forcing the breath out of Red. The horse grunted to a stop, startled.

        Moving cautiously, Tiger dismounted. Holding the bridle, he stepped in front of the horse and pulled the animal's head down to his eye level. Red tried to pull away, but Tiger held him still. From somewhere in the back of the human's throat came a deep, menacing growl. Red rolled his eyes and began to tremble.

        "Behave," said Tiger, "or you're lunch."

        He remounted the now-sweating horse and gently nudged him in the ribs with his heels. Red responded quickly and alertly, and from then on presented a remarkable air of cooperation. Chirk nearly fell off the fence, laughing.

        Rowark, watching from nearby, smiled and shook his head. He had seen some unusual relationships in his time, but the human and the Squirrel were something unique. They had become fast friends in just a handful of days, sitting and talking excitedly over the oddest subjects, or going for long walks through town in the process of getting Tiger properly equipped for his role as mediator.

        Chirk had put himself in charge of outfitting Tiger for the trip. Since he had arrived literally with just the clothes he was wearing, that gave the Squirrel an opportunity to build a wardrobe from the start, something no Squirrel would waste. Tiger made some protest over all the fuss, but against Chirk's drive to put together a fashionable set of clothing for him this produced no headway whatsoever. Tiger's old clothes were confiscated by the Squirrel, to be used in an attempt to find the world from which they - and therefore Tiger - had come. This had the (intended) side effect of forcing Tiger to wear the garments Chirk selected for him.

        Tiger, for the moment, was wearing a simple, rugged set of clothes which Chirk had made clear were only to be used for rough work. The human, it turned out, liked to dress plainly, even sloppily. Chirk had therefore provided written instructions for what he was to wear and when, to be used for the duration of the mission. Meanwhile, the Squirrel was trying his best to drum some fashion sense into his friend. For such a remarkable person, Tiger had rather mundane tastes. Rowark had to admit that the Squirrel had made a lot of progress. There were times when Tiger looked downright handsome - for a human.

        Rowark just wished that the rest of the preparations were going as smoothly. The negotiating party had been decided; it was made up of four council representatives - Rowark for the Canines, Leerowll for the Cats, Rikkrikk for the Squirrels and Rrandril for the Bears. That the Bears had chosen a member of another species to represent them was no surprise; they disliked travel and there were no mounts suitable for them. Rowark just wished they had picked someone other than Rrandril. And Leerowll was - well - a Cat. While she seemed competent enough, at least in regular council sessions, her sense of responsibility was a bit underdeveloped. At that, she had more sense than most Cats.

        In addition to the representatives and Tiger, there were also four Canine guards, plus horses for all and six pack mules.

        On the day of departure they left early in the morning, with no fanfare. It would be a long, tiring and possibly dangerous trip. Rowark had a nagging feeling that some in the party would not see home again. He put it down to the early hour and a rushed breakfast.

        "So that's Riverside," said Tiger, rising a bit in the stirrups to see better over the brush.

        Rowark nodded. They were paused at a wide spot on the trail, a switchback where they could look out over the plain. Below them, not far in a straight line but still most of a day's journey on the trail, lay the moderately prosperous trade city where the negotiations were to be held. Riverside had only recently joined the Empire, more as a matter of yielding to the inevitable than anything else.

        The negotiating party had met a few people on the way, mostly traders going to or from the City of Fur, or hunters. Now the traffic began to increase. Few Fur came this far out of the mountains, and the party received some strange looks from the people they encountered. Even Tiger earned his share of stares. Not only was he unusually tall, but he was dressed in the finest Squirrel traveling garb, the only concessions to his species being the pants.

        They made camp soon after, at a rest area already occupied by several human traders. More came in while the Fur were thus occupied. By an unspoken agreement, the Fur party used one side of the clearing and the humans the other. There were no hostilities. In fact, many of the traders came by to talk. Some had dealt with Fur before; others were just curious.

        After a restful night, the delegation got underway early the next morning. Chirk had suggested that everyone in the party change from their plainer traveling garb to their finest at this point, and Rowark had agreed. It seemed a good way to make the point that the Fur were not just animals mimicking human form, but important persons in their own right.

        They arrived at the main gate well before sunset, and were escorted by city guards to the town hall, where they were met by official representatives of the city, including the Mayor. After welcoming speeches, they were led to a large house near the center of town.

        "This residence is specifically set aside for housing important visitors," the Mayor explained. "We have reserved the east wing for our honored guests from the mountains, and the west for the delegation from the Empire."

        "Where will you put me?" asked Tiger, speaking up for the first time.

        "Why, I had assumed that you would wish to be with the other humans," replied the mayor.

        "My job is to act as go-between for the two parties," Tiger explained. "It would be ideal if I could be placed in the central part, especially if near the meeting rooms."

        An aide came up and whispered in the Mayor's ear, and the older man nodded.

        "We have just the thing. There is a suite on the top floor, just over the meeting rooms. It has a large bedroom, several smaller rooms and a central lounge for entertaining."

        "Perfect!" said Tiger, grinning.

        Rowark hadn't considered this aspect of Tiger's job, but on reflection he realized that the human was right. If he were to succeed he couldn't even appear to favor one group over the other. By literally staying in the middle, he would demonstrate his neutrality.

        The servants assigned to the mansion quickly removed the party's baggage, and the grooms led the ponies and pack animals to the stables around back. Red put up a fuss, but Tiger spoke quietly and calmingly to him for a few minutes, and the stallion allowed himself to be taken away.

        "Welcome, honored Fur," said a dignified-looking man, as they entered the main hall. "I am Setras, your host. The representatives of the Empire of the Great Water are already here, having arrived this morning. If you will follow me, I will show you to your rooms."

        The official introductions between the two groups of negotiators were supposed to take place during the formal dinner that evening, but three of the representatives from the Empire dropped by while the Fur were getting settled in their rooms. One of them went directly to Rowark, and introduced himself as the wizard Taxil.

        "I understand you are the wizard of this group," he said, after he and Rowark had exchanged formal pleasantries. "I will be interested in comparing techniques with you, if time permits."

        Another of the three was a fat merchant named Borust, to whom Rowark took an instant and irrational dislike. He announced himself in a self-important way, and left as soon as he had introduced himself to each of the Fur representatives.

        "He could be trouble, for both our peoples," said Taxil, sighing. "He makes most of his income from selling weapons and armor. He would find a war most profitable."

        Rowark led Taxil around the various rooms to which the Fur had been assigned, making leisurely introductions. Unlike Borust, whose purpose seemed to be a preliminary evaluation of the enemy, the wizard seemed genuinely interested in meeting the Fur. So did the third member of the Empire team, the only woman, an elder named Saresta. While Rowark, Taxil, Saresta and Leerowll were making small talk, Tiger joined them, smiling and rubbing his hands.

        "Perfect!" he announced, without preamble. "The private rooms they gave me are just right, and the lounge should do nicely for meetings of small groups, for social gatherings or special discussions."

        "And you are?" asked Saresta.

        Rowark made the introductions, and explained what Tiger's job was to be.

        "Mediation?" said Taxil. "I have heard of it being used in other cases, but wasn't expecting it here. Still, if he is truly neutral, he could be a great help in settling our differences."

        It was just after this that the bell rang, announcing that dinner would begin shortly. The various sapients bade hasty good-byes and hurried off to their rooms to change.

        "I'm not sure that I am willing to allow this," said Rassmussen, the head of the Empire's negotiators. "We did not agree to a mediator ahead of time, and are not familiar with this person's qualifications. Besides, his price of three hundred gold coins is rather high. Is this what you are paying him?"

        "No," replied Rowark. "Tiger is from a distant land, and is trying to return there. We have agreed to help him. That is our payment."

        "Still, three hundred gold coins..." interjected Borust.

        "You don't pay if you don't like the results," said Tiger. "If you don't think my services were useful, I leave empty-handed. The same deal applies to the Fur."

        "You are putting a lot of trust in our good will," said Rassmussen. "We could, no matter how well you perform, simply say that it was not good enough, and refuse to pay."

        "Goodwill is what we are here to create," Tiger pointed out. "I am assuming that you are all honest and honorable men and women. Otherwise, there's no reason to even have these talks."

        There was a murmur of assent at this, and the conversation settled into more mundane topics. Rowark began to pay attention to his meal. Someone had done their research. The table was laid out with an assortment of food, the majority of which was at least edible for all those present, and many of the dishes were enjoyed by both Fur and human.

        Rowark noticed that several of the humans were paying rather more attention to Leerowll than he liked. She seemed to be enjoying the experience, but the wizard was worried that the humans might misinterpret her attitude. It didn't help that the female Cats had been originally designed largely as sex toys for rich and powerful humans with a taste for exotic partners. Add to that a Cat's natural sensuality and Leerowll's teasing attitude, and there might be trouble. Rowark decided to have a private talk with Rassmussen about this later.

        Tiger, for the most part, kept quiet, but Rowark could tell that despite his casual attitude the human was studying both the people in the room and how they acted towards one another.

        After dinner, the participants said good night, and retired to their quarters. They were all tired from the journey to Riverside, and there was no sense beginning any serious discussion until they had rested. Rowark was a little uneasy about leaving Tiger isolated in his large suite, not because he felt that the human was in any danger but because he thought he might be lonely. Oh, well, it was Tiger's decision.

        "First off, I want to thank you for accepting me as your mediator," said Tiger, as the first meeting officially began. "I promise you that I will do my best to be both impartial and helpful. Also, there is one thing I think you should know before we start. I have some minor magical abilities, and one benefit of those is that I can usually tell if someone is lying. If I detect someone telling an untruth I won't confront them during the meeting, unless there is a compelling reason to do so, but I will talk to you afterward about it. If you can convince me that there is a good reason for not revealing something, then I will not force you to. Just be sure that it is a good reason."

        There was a small stir at this, but Rassmussen quickly quieted his people. He then turned to Rowark and, as leader of the human delegation to leader of the Fur delegation, began the business of the day.

        "But local human hunters have been working those woods for centuries!" exclaimed Travis, who represented the land owners' interests. "With both Fur and humans hunting there, the game is rapidly declining."

        "Your people can raise domesticated cattle and sheep, as well as fishing in the two rivers and the ocean," Rrandril countered. "We have little land for raising animals, and only one rather small river for fishing."

        "You can't expect the local hunters to simply abandon their profession!" countered Travis.

        "If I might make a suggestion," said Tiger. There was an immediate silence. Tiger rarely spoke during the more heated discussions, but they had all learned by now that when he did, he was worth listening to. "Why not create a strip along the proposed border, where no hunting is allowed? This would not only provide a reserve of game animals which would replenish the areas away from the border, it would also create a buffer zone between the two lands. You have been arguing over the exact placement of the boundary; this would make that easier, since it would allow room for error."

        "But who would police this area?" demanded Arast, who represented the nobility.

        "That is for you to work out among yourselves," Tiger told him. "Perhaps a combined group of Fur and human game wardens."

        Having said his piece, Tiger kept quiet while the negotiators worked out the details. Rowark noticed that half the Fur sided with half the humans on accepting this proposal, while the other halves of each group were united in opposition. Rowark wondered if Tiger had planned this deliberately, to force alliances between Fur and human factions. It seemed unlike the straightforward Tiger, but these past three days he had shown a depth of skill in handling people that Rowark had previously not suspected.

        Later, after the evening meal, Rowark and Taxil visited with Tiger in his suite.

        "I hope this conference doesn't last much longer," groaned Tiger. "I don't know how much more I can take."

        Taxil laughed at this, and even Rowark smiled.

        "Why should you be tired?" jibed the human wizard. "All you do is sit there and listen. We do all the work!"

        They sat, chatting about this and that, for some time after dark, the room lit by oil lamps of a smokeless type that Rowark found himself envying the humans for having. Part of what this conference was supposed to work out was official trade agreements, and Rowark was going to make a point of having those lamps included.

        Suddenly, Tiger stopped in mid sentence and looked up at the door. Taxil was just about to ask what was the matter, when there was a knock.

        "Enter!" called Tiger.

        It was one of the servants assigned to take care of the needs of the delegates. He had a message for Tiger.

        "It's from Borust," mused Tiger, after he neatly slit the envelope open with the tip of a finger. He read the note, and frowned. "I've been invited to a private dinner in his quarters, tomorrow evening."

        "Just you?" asked Rowark.

        "He says there will be others, but isn't specific." Tiger shrugged. "Guess I'll have to go there and see."

        As it turned out, Taxil, Rassmussen, Rrandril and Rowark had also received invitations. The four of them, plus Tiger, appeared at Borust's suite at the appointed time, and were ushered in and seated immediately. Borust was already there, rising to greet his guests with the easy grace of a professional salesman.

        "I have decided to follow our honored mediator's example," he explained, smiling in Tiger's direction. "We shall have refreshments and spend some time talking, getting to know one another."

        Since Borust was about the only person on either side who had not taken advantage of Tiger's open invitation to use his large room for social gatherings, Rowark was immediately suspicious. He hid his disquiet in the meaningless small talk such situations require.

        As drinks and food were being served, Borust opened the conversation by remarking how smoothly the talks had been progressing so far.

        "I wouldn't have suspected that such different creatures as ourselves and the Fur could have so much in common," he commented. "If things continue at this pace, we will be able to complete the initial agreements in another three or four days. An amazing accomplishment.

        "But there are always unexpected factors in negotiations like these," continued Borust, reaching out to ring a serving bell. "Factors, lurking unsuspected, which can take all those involved by surprise and disrupt even the firmest of relationships. For instance, something which would cause an emotional response in some of those involved, to the point that they are unable to continue."

        Rowark, realizing that the human was planning something, looked over at the door as it opened. When he saw the serving girl enter with the tray, he stiffened, the fur around his neck bristling. She was a fox, given human form, as Rowark's own ancestors had been.

        "What if it were learned that the original transformation of animals to Fur had been repeated?" said Borust. "Except that this time, they were left with only animal intelligence? They are the perfect slaves, and since they are not sentient there is no moral objection to their servitude. What would the Fur do then?"

        Rowark started to rise, a low growl forming in the back of his throat. Then, he caught her scent. The growl died, and he hesitated in confusion. Her appearance was fox, but her scent was human, entirely. Beside him, Rrandril was having a similar reaction. Rowark forced himself to relax, fighting to regain his composure as he saw Borust's plan. The human had intended to cause an incident, which he hoped would end the treaty talks. He hadn't counted on the Canines' keen sense of smell uncovering his deception. All this flashed through Rowark's mind in an instant, and he was just starting to smile, when he sensed Tiger stand beside him.

        "You dare!!" hissed Tiger. "You dare to mutilate someone like this, for your own selfish gain!"

        Rowark felt the tiger stirring, saw a faint shimmering in the air around his friend, but Tiger fought it down, kept it concealed. He glanced at Borust, and saw that the merchant was both alarmed and confused.

        "Don't be deceived by appearances," said Borust, hastily. "She is a fox, given human form and made obedient, not something created from human stock."

        By the time he finished he was once again the smug dealer in weapons and armor they all knew. Tiger, though, was not paying attention. He went quickly to the fox-like creature, his quick movements and anger causing her to draw back in fright.

        "Easy," said Tiger, gently, calming himself with an effort. "I'm not going to hurt you."

        He coaxed her into a chair, then stood frowning at her. She stared back, her empty eyes showing only a trace of awareness.

        Rowark and Taxil joined him in examining her. While the Canine watched, Taxil cast a spell of true seeing. After a few moments, they looked at each other, then at Borust.

        "Either you have been deceived," said Taxil, levelly, "or you are guilty of a heinous act. This is a human woman; she has been violated mentally and physically to produce this pathetic creature before us."

        "I... didn't know," gasped Borust, paling. "I hired a team of wizards... paid them good money. They swore that they used a vixen..."

        He grabbed his wine goblet and gulped down its contents, as the other negotiators watched with guarded expressions.

        "You must believe me! I will swear whatever oath you ask, even allow myself to be questioned under a truth spell!"

        "It may come to that," said Rassmussen, ominously.

        Borust was absent from the next day's talks, with no explanation. The day after that, he sent a note pleading illness.

        "I'll just bet he's sick," said Tiger, with heat. "Sick that his plan failed so disastrously."

        "Easy, friend," said Taxil. "He was genuinely cheated. The truth spell proved that."

        They were in Tiger's suite, both relaxing and celebrating. The day had seen the last of the negotiations. For tomorrow there remained only the formal signing of the treaty documents.

        "Its not just that he is indirectly responsible for that poor woman's condition," Tiger continued. "He saw that this conference was succeeding, and wanted to destroy everything we had created."

        "And he failed," said Leerowll, firmly, "loosing much prestige in the process."

        "And that worries me," said Chandras, the human representative for the tradesmen. "He is a powerful man, financially and politically. He could make trouble, perhaps even discredit our treaty."

        "One bit of good news," said Rowark, trying to lighten the mood. "The fox-woman Borust had created can almost certainly be returned to human form and her full wits."

        "Yes," said Taxil, nodding. "Rowark and I have placed her in the care of a local group of mages. They agree with our assessment that the enchantments were hurriedly and crudely placed, and should be reversible without much effort."

        The formal signing the next day was brief and solemn. In addition to Tiger and all the delegates placing their signatures on the treaty, the Mayor and several local nobles, businessmen and politicians were present as witnesses. The two copies of the final documents were carefully rolled and placed in leather-covered wooden tubes, which were capped and sealed. The celebration that night spread far beyond the mansion; throughout the city and outside its walls, people rejoiced that a peaceful settlement had been reached.

        They were two days out of Riverside, well into the foothills. Tiger had been uncharacteristically quiet since they left Riverside. Rowark reined in a bit, until he rode beside the human. Red snapped at the wizard's pony, but Tiger smacked him on top of the head and he subsided.

        "What's wrong, my friend?" asked Rowark.

        "No matter where I go, there are selfish, shortsighted people." He heaved a great sigh, then turned to smile at Rowark. "Fortunately, there are also trustworthy and open-minded people."

        Rowark felt flattered, and was about to say so, when Tiger suddenly turned and stiffened, rising in his saddle. Some of the horses sensed it too, reacting with various symptoms of alarm. That was all the warning they got.

        Arrows rained down on the party, and a dozen men with swords and spears charged at them out of the trees. Several arrows found targets; Rowark was saved from harm only by the fact that he always kept protection spells on himself when traveling. There were cries of pain from among the delegates, the guards and their animals. Rowark cast his quickest and most basic combat spell, a bolt of fire, not aiming at any particular enemy but trying to ignite the underbrush between the two forces.

        Some of the humans were deterred by the blaze Rowark caused, some charged through, some simply ran around. However, it did buy time, blunting the attack. Arrows were still falling on them, but stopped as the charging humans closed. Rowark jumped off his horse, as did the rest of the Fur and Tiger. In this sort of close quarters, with low-hanging limbs overhead, being on the ground was better. Rowark cast a deathbolt at a human swinging at Rrandril, killing him before he could properly get the blow started.

        "Circle around!" cried the Canine head of their escort. "Back to back and side to side! Anyone with a ranged attack get in the middle!"

        It took some doing, and not everyone made it, but they managed to get most of their party organized. Rowark hurried to the center, and cast a protective spell on the party. It was a hasty thing, but it gave them a slight defense against both hand-to-hand and ranged weapons. Rowark then noticed that Tiger was not among those in the cluster. Well, if anyone could survive alone in this fight, he could. The wizard began to cast a more powerful defensive spell, a protective wall that would keep out all but the most powerful blow, when he came under assault, by magic. It was a magebolt, a thunderstroke of pure magical energy, the type of thing wizards use against magical creatures - or other wizards. Rowark's personal wards held, aided by the initial barrier he had erected. But where was the enemy mage?

        More magebolts struck, and from several sources. Rowark hastily strengthened his protections, as he realized that there were at least two wizards against him. He thought fast. He didn't know where they were, and so far their attacks were not penetrating his wards. Instead of trying to find them, he concentrated on helping his people. He cast a spell which expanded his anti-magic protections to cover the whole group, to prevent the enemy wizards from striking at his friends when they realized they couldn't harm him. Then he took several seconds to prepare and launch a powerful spell which took the form of a stream of black spots, humming like bees, which flew from his outstretched fingertips.

        These sought out and bedeviled their enemies, doing little direct harm but leaving the distracted humans open to more mundane offense. Rowark half expected the hidden mages to counter his spell, but the swarm continued to do its work until the last five humans in melee broke and ran. Several of the Fur started after them, and Rowark and those with bows harried the running foes. Soon, all of the attackers were dead.

        "We must find those wizards!" yelled Rowark. "And Tiger, as well!"

        Rowark hurried in the direction the arrows and the magical attacks had come from. He found a scene that left him stunned.

        Eight archers lay on the ground, quite dead. Slightly beyond them, two men in plain robes lay equally without life. All of the bodies looked as if they had been savaged by some great cat, their clothes and flesh bearing horrendous slashes. Nearby was Tiger, sitting on a log, looking sick. Rowark sat beside him, putting a hand on the human's shoulder.

        "Are you hurt?"

        "No. Not physically, anyway." He swallowed with difficulty, and looked at Rowark with haggard eyes. "I hate killing. I do it when I have to, but I always feel bad afterwards."

        Rowark noticed a small, burned-looking hole in Tiger's shirt.

        "You survived a deathbolt!"

        "Three of them, actually." Tiger fingered the hole, grimacing. "Nasty piece of business, that. Attacks the life force directly. Fortunately, mine is protected."

        There was no time to explore Tiger's resilience further; several of the party were wounded and required healing. Rowark helped those who could be helped and needed it most, while the less seriously wounded were tended by others. They had lost four, including the Squirrel Rikkrikk. By the time they were finished Rowark was exhausted, physically, emotionally and mystically. Leerowll sat nearby, slowly licking blood that wasn't hers out of her fur, with Tiger and Rrandril laying on blankets just beyond her. They barely took notice when the head of their escort approached them, holding a belt pouch. He dramatically poured the contents onto an outstretched palm.

        "Mercenaries," said the Canine. "Got this from the leader. There is enough gold between them to pay Tiger's fee twice over. It carries Borust's scent."

        There was some angry muttering among them. Rowark, Tiger and others confirmed that Borust's scent was indeed on the gold.

        "Now we must decide on our course," said the guard.

        "Did any of them escape?" asked Tiger, thoughtfully.

        "None. All were killed."

        "Then I say we strip and bury the bodies and go on."

        The Canine bristled.

        "You will let our companions go unavenged?"

        "Even if the humans accept that we can identify the gold as Borust's by scent, it will be our word against his," said Tiger. "He's clever. He'll have made plans in case this attack failed. You can bet that there is a good chance your rage would be turned against you. Better that he hears nothing."

        The guard captain looked as if he were about to start an angry argument.

        "Don't you think I want to find Borust and rip his heart out?" snapped Tiger, quickly. He struck at a tree with a slashing motion, leaving five deep groves in the trunk. "But that would be bad for a lot of humans and Fur both."

        "He's right," said Leerowll, slowly, nodding in reluctant agreement. "That viper in human form will have planned for the eventuality of at least some of us surviving. The best vengeance we can exact will be to leave him not knowing which course to take."

        No one liked that alternative, but the delegates and most of the guard agreed that it was the best available. The rest grumblingly went along with them.

        Even though there was still some time left before nightfall after they had disposed of the bodies, it was decided to make camp. The horses were rounded up, including those used by their attackers, and guards posted. Those not on duty rested.

        Leerowll lay gracefully down beside Tiger, putting her hand inside his shirt to gently trace her claws over his skin.

        "Violence always leaves me aroused," she told him, softly.

        Tiger turned to give her a thoughtful look, then reached up and scratched behind her ear.

        "I'm flattered. And tempted. But not now. I just can't."

        She shrugged and rolled over, back to him, and curled up and went to sleep.

        The rest of the trip, mercifully, went without incident. They pressed on at a quickened pace, pushing hard, so that they arrived in the City just three days later. The members of the group left their mounts at the council stable and said their good-byes, each going his or her own way. Though the guards would return to their barracks and rest, the negotiators were scheduled to meet with Browlara that evening, taking only enough time to clean themselves and change clothes. The Leader already knew, from the messages that Rowark had sent Chirikitt through mystical means, that they had been successful, but he was anxious to hear the full story.

        "Welcome back!" exclaimed Chirk, as the Canine and the human entered Rowark's quarters. He rushed forward to give each a warm embrace. "I am so glad you survived that ambush! And I have good news! By using the law of contagion, I have established a link between the clothing Tiger left here and his own world!"

        "Does he ever talk in anything but exclamation points?" asked Tiger, looking at Rowark.

        "Occasionally," the Canine replied.

        Rowark left to Chirk the task of confirming with Tiger that he had, indeed, found the human's world. Meanwhile, he and the rest of the surviving negotiators met with Browlara. Mercifully, the Leader of the City kept the session short. Rowark staggered back to his room. He barely had the energy to change out of his clothes before crawling into bed. As sleep crept over him he heard Tiger and Chirk, talking excitedly next door, in the workshop.

        They stood in the central hall, the three of them, alone. Tiger had said his farewells that morning and the night before. Since there was some small danger in what was being attempted, as well as a need for concentration, only Tiger, Chirk and Rowark were present for the spell.

        "I wish I could take Red," sighed Tiger.

        "I'm sorry," Rowark told him. "As I explained earlier, though, there is no way to know how the horse would react, and it is possible that he could ruin the elaborate and delicate preparations we require to cast this spell."

        "Don't worry," said Chirk, "we'll find a good home for him."

        "I guess I'm ready," said Tiger, a bit reluctantly. He lifted the bundle containing the clothes Chirk had obtained for him, the gold he had been paid, and the other items he had acquired while here, and started to step up on the dais. Chirk stopped him. "A going-away present," the Squirrel said, handing him a small pewter pendant shaped like a tiger's head, hanging from a silver chain. "This has a permanent translation spell implanted in it, and a few other interesting properties. For instance, once you put it on, only you can take it off. Also, it is a lot less fragile than it appears."

        Tiger took the present and looked at it for a long moment, an odd glint in his eyes. Lowering his bundle, he carefully put the chain around his neck and fastened it. Then, he stepped forward and hugged the surprised Squirrel. He pulled away, wiping his eyes, and reached into his pocket. He handed his Swiss Army knife to Chirk.

        "I saw how you admired it," said Tiger, smiling. "I just wish it were in better shape."

        "The nicks and dings will add to the sentimental value," said the Squirrel firmly, quite serious for a change.

        There were no further words available, and none needed. Tiger stood on the platform while the two wizards worked. It was a long and complicated spell, even though much preparation had been done in advance. Finally, they reached the critical phase. Rowark steeled himself, and spoke the words, his moving hands trailing light in the air. There was a momentary hush, then a soundless flash, and Tiger was gone.

        "He said he would come back to visit," said Chirk, quietly, as he and Rowark put away their equipment.

        "He did," Rowark confirmed. "Just remember, time may run differently on his world. He may be gone a long while."

        They walked silently to the heavy doors. Chirikitt paused to look back at the dais, then sighed and helped his teacher with the bar.

The End

    This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net. Please contact the author for permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.