GATHER: Wher's Day Out (Tamalak/Chato, Kalain/Sleek, various.

Laurie
 

The first day of the Gather was a blast. Tamalak and Kalain had made sure to play with Chato and Sleek early in the morning. They played them hard so they would sleep all day while they were out. And it worked! The whelps were none the wiser when the boys came back, tired but happy. They’d even brought some treats with them, to make up for being gone--not that the tunnelwhers even noticed they were gone. Chato, though, noticed all the fun-food smells covering Tam when he woke up.


~Where you go?~ the wher asked.


“There’s a Gather, and Kalain and I went.” Chato was able to get a sense of what was going on by reading Tamalak’s mind. And it looked like a lot of fun.


~Sleek and I go with tomorrow,~ Chato said with conviction.


“No, you won’t. There are a lot of people there, and most are afraid of whers.”


~Sleek and I not normal.~ Chato was proud of this.


Tamalak sighed. “And that’s why you can’t go. People will either be afraid of you, or point at you and try to touch you. You won’t like it.”


Chato huffed. He knew he’d like it.


The next morning Tam and Kalain did the same thing. But they didn’t notice their whers held back, and when they left, both were still awake.


Sneaky whers. They’d snuck off once and it’d been FUN. And now they were missing out on fun. Kalain and Tam had told them so. How could they be left out?


~Sleek and Chato go fun~ Sleek said. She’d been watching them open and close the kennel doors and after a bit of working at it, she had the kennel door unlocked and then Chato’s. ~Go fun.~ She set off toward the sound of the Gather.


~More fun than Tam or ‘Lain,~ Chato agreed, running beside her. ~Surprise them. After fun.~ 


The smells were delicious, and people were clumsy. They ran in the more shaded parts when they reached the Gather, which was good for them in two ways: Less people, since they were behind the carts and exhibits, and darker. A third bonus was that was where the food vendors threw the sub-standard and ruined food. Chato didn’t care that there was some dirt on sweet fried dough. It was still delicious. 


~Try this,~ he said, nosing a kebob to Sleek. ~Yummy.~


Sleek was happy to take the rest of the delicious meaty treat and then nose around for more until the unhappy stall owner, less intimidated by young whers, chased them off.


~Mean twolegs~ Sleek growled even as she slunk off, one last bite of castoff meat in her mouth.


Of course even in the back and shade, they were starting to attract some attention. Not only as young whers loose at the Gather, but as *weird* whers at the Gather. And a gold and bronze at that. Sleek wasn’t sure if she liked the attention or not and she sped her movements along.


~Lots twolegs.~ she said worriedly.


Chato agreed, but he was not going to admit Tam had been right to leave them behind. ~Maybe find Tam and ‘Lain?~ he said. ~Or go in there?~


Ahead was a tent, which promised to be dark and less crowded. He also smelled some live not-twolegs in there, though some he didn’t know what they were. ~Smells strange.~


It did smell strange...and yet familiar. Familiar enough to be almost comforting, with something over top. But it was dark and it’d be cool in there and quiet.


~Sleek and Chato go see.~ Sleek pushed past him and into the tent. There they passed things like the kennels, but more open and with creatures that looked similar to what they were used to, but not the same at the same time. One of those things Kalain called a canine with things coming out of its back stood at the beginning. And something else he’d never seen that growled and lashed its tail with stripes.


Chato stopped to look at the growly thing and it roared at him. ~Scary!~ he said, jumping off the ground for a second. He ran to another cage and whined. Inside was a gold wher, like Lustre only bigger, and it had six legs. But two didn’t look right.


~Who dat?~ he asked. He knew there were other whers in the weyr, but none smelled like this one. She smelled like despair, and sadness, and longing.


He also noticed she couldn’t lay down. Whoever had put her in the cage had wanted her legs to all be seen, so there was a harness holding her up. ~Why dat?~ he said. 


The gold’s nose had lifted the second she caught the new scents in the tent, taking deep and noisy breaths. ((Who there?!)) she demanded, swinging her head to look around as best she could in the contraption that held her up.


~Chato. And Sleek,~ Chato said helpfully. ~Quiet in here. Outside noisy. Lots people. Why you there?~ 


He and Sleek were from the Wherhall. No one put whers in cages there, unless they had a good reason for it. Actually, he’d never seen a wher in a cage. So it was foreign to him that she would be confined.


The closet to a cage the Wherhall got were the kennels and they were big and comfortable and more like dens than cages. This...this was sad, if Sleek could have put a word to it. She whined. This wasn’t right. Nothing was right here. This wasn’t safe at all.


Sleek crouched down and backed up. ~Sleek and Chato leave. Not good.~ Her fronds twitched nervously and she turned to nuzzle at Chato, some of the fronds wrapping around his for comfort.


The gold fidgeted, clearly annoyed with the harness she was forced to wear as she inspected the two pups. (( You not like Gold Girl, )) she announced with haughty derision. (( You like Green Stone! Why here? Not Green Stone’s pups!)) Already the gold had made a decision, perturbed by these interlopers. (( Mar’no come! Mar’no come Gold Girl! Strangers! ))


Chato leaned into Sleek for comfort, but when the gold started calling for hers, he reared back. ~She make Lustre look nice,~ he said to Sleek. ~We go now!~ This time he led the way, going for the first opening he could find...which was suddenly blocked by a strange person who smelled bad.


He turned and ran right into Sleek. ~We need go. Sorry. We need go,~ he babbled.


Sleek grunted and tried to wheel around herself, but the man held the tent flap open enough to let the light in and with their sensitive eyes and no protection on she was half-blinded. She squealed and couldn’t figure out what way to go.


~Which way? Which way?~ She ran and ended up going back toward the weird gold wher where at least it was darker.


“What’s all the noise ab --- Feckin’ Faranth, where did they come from?!” The annoyed voice of the male that appeared at the tent - Marleno, hopped back as Chato almost collided with them. “Feckin’ wher pups!” He swore before turning on the gold in the cage. “Make ‘em stop Girl. Do it!”


The gold grumbled, her upper lip curling in a ghost of a snarl at the man. But she knew better than not to comply. (( You STOP. )) she insisted, her mind-voice to the whelps layered with command only a gold knew. (( You stop NOW. ))


Chato whined and crouched on the floor and whined. ~Why you so mean?~ he asked. A small part of him hoped that Sleek could at least get away. She was a gold, but they were young. He shivered on the floor, wanting to be back at the Wherhall. 

In his fright he never even thought to call for Tam, though part of that could have been the compulsion. 


The gold wasn’t a tunnelwher gold, but they were young and Sleek hadn’t come into her own yet so instinct still won out. It was close enough and she was scared. That the gold couldn’t get out to attack didn’t seem to be the point. The adult said stop, so she stopped. She still grumbled about it even as her body quaked a bit.


~Sleek and Chato want to leave!~ she protested. ~Why keep us here? Let us go!~


(( Not mean. In charge. Gold Girl say no go. Whelps stay. )) There was the distinct impression that the gold didn’t like what she had been told to do but knew the consequence of disobeying as the man stepped forward, bending down first over Sleek and then Chato. “Faranth’s golden arse, it’s them rock wher things. A feckin’ Queen too. Oy, Lowric! Lowric get in here!” The man’s bellow rang out of the tent for the Apprentice and he was already reaching for the rope he kept slung around his shoulders. “Tell ‘em to not move. Make sure they know it.”


There was a sigh from the gold, (( No move. Sit still now. No move. ))


Chato didn’t want to not move. He wanted to move very much, but the thousands of Turns of conditioning kept him still. Instead, he whined. A lot. 


A hint of his whining reached Tamalak as he and Kalain were checking out the games of chance. He knew that these games were fixed, but they were fun. And he could at least get a small prize, even if he couldn’t get the big one. 


He was trying a ring toss game: attempting to toss a wooden hoop over a barrel about an inch smaller than the interior of the hoop. Possible, but not likely. He felt Chato whine as he was throwing his last hoop.


~What’s wrong, Chato?~ he asked, then frowned. ~Where are you?~ A slightly stupid question to ask, except he didn’t feel like he was at the Wherhall Kennels.


“Hey, you won!” the kid manning the booth said in surprise, but Tam wasn’t listening to him. Chato was silent, but he got a sense of a dark tent and a darker presence above him.


“Kalain, see if Sleek is OK,” he said. “Chato’s whining, and I don’t think he’s at the kennels. Something was thrust in his arms but he barely noticed as he watched his friend.


“What?” the question caught Kalain off guard as he was in the middle of tossing his own ring. He frowned and probed at Sleek who he was surprised to find was awake at all.

~Sleek?~


~Want to leave, ‘lain~ Sleek said. ~Big gold stop us from leaving.~


“Big gold?” Kalain said it out loud and in his head with rising confusion and panic. “What big gold? Where are you? Tam, what’s going on?”


~Stuck! Sleek stuck!~


~Chato, Sleek, what big gold?~ Tam asked, reaching out to both whers. Since he and Kalain were so close, and Chato and Sleek were close, he could hear Sleek as easily as he could Chato. With the added benefit of no headache from prolonged contact with a wher not his.


Chato looked into the gold wher’s eyes. ~That big gold,~ he said, sending a picture back. 


~You. Who are you and why are you keeping my whers from leaving?~ he asked Gold Girl. A tiny lie, but technically Sleek belonged to the weyr that Tam belonged to…


“Looks like there’s a gold wher in a dark place somewhere around here,” he said to Kalain, keeping an ear out for all three whers. “I’m trying to see what’s happening, but like I said, it’s dark. We need to find them!”


“Mar’ I have told you  before, you don’t sharding interrupt when I’m getting th’...” The new voice was younger, a lot younger but had the sharp edge of someone used to bossing people around. However it ground to a halt and when it spoke again, there was a decisive edge. “Rope ‘em.” 


Quick as a wink, Marleno had slung ropes around the bodies of both whers and tugged the pups up onto their feet with a practiced snap of the rope. “Where do you want them,” Marleno asked and the new voice, Lowric, spoke again. “Cage out back. One the old feline was in that died last month. Shove ‘em in and put covers over the top. Get your beast to keep them quiet.” A thumb was jerked in the direction of Gold Girl and a tall, weaselly looking young man bent down to inspect the faces of Sleek and Chato. “Barnum is gonna love this.”


At the new voice in her thoughts, Gold Girl suddenly gnashed and groaned, tossing her head as though pained, moving heavily in her cage. (( Out head! Out! )) It was a mental groan and Marleno looked at her curiously. “What’s the gripe you silly beast? Stop thrashing or you’ll have the cage over!” 


But Gold Girl didn’t, grunting as she curled back her lips and growled. ((No talk! Out head! No talk Strangers! )) The gold abruptly jumped as Lowric thumped a heavy kosh against the bars, making them rattle. “Pack it in and keep these two quiet!”


At the rope Sleek howled and thrashed. This was some stranger putting a rope on her, not her ‘lain. She was young, but big enough to give a fight and she was loud enough to upset the canine and the wild feline.

~Let go!~ LEETTT GOOOO!~

Kalain gasped and put his hand over his ears as if it could drown out the mental voice.

“Feck, we have to find them, Tam! They have her! They have her tied up!”


Tam was getting it double, along with a strange wher yelling at him. “Flash! Go get Insera!” he cried as Chato tried to bite the hand of the bad smelling two-legs. But that one didn’t smell nearly as bad as the new one. 


Chato howled, and backed up, kicking against the feline’s cage. The door opened, and like a shot from a crossbow it was gone. 


In a flash of genius, Tam called out to Brogan. Actually, he called out to any wher within mindshot.


~Someone’s hurting Sleek and Chato!~ he called out. ~At the Gather.~ 


Brogan had always been a favorite of his, since it was because of him he went into the whercraft. Hopefully Brogan felt the same about him.


Another clatter of the kosh on the cage. “Shut them up!” The man known as Lowric swore loudly and jumped aside as the felines streaked past him and Marleno growled at the girl. “Do it. Shut them up!” He was hauling on the ropes, roughly dragging the wherpups with him.


(( Quiet *now*. No noise. *Quiet*! )) The gold forced her will on Sleek and Chato, ordering them to obey, ordering their silence. But it was clear that she wasn’t happy about it.


The gold had told them to be quiet, but not to stop fighting, so Sleek only fought harder. She snapped and jumped and bucked against the ropes, but two more people showed up and more ropes appeared until she was tied and unable to move. Between multiple people she was lifted and carried toward the cage in the back while the others worked on Chato. Eventually Sleek gave up fighting. She’d have whimpered if she could have, instead she laid limp.


~Sleek and Chato hurt! ~ Brogan passed to Kassia as she headed back to the Weyr with M’gal. ~Someone hurt those whers!~


“What? Hold on.” Kass put her hand on M’gal’s arm. ~Get more information, Brogan.”


~What happen?~ Brogan sent back to Tam.


Meanwhile Insera was settled relaxing at the Wherhall stall when the flit appeared all upset. “What’s wrong?”


M’gal stopped and didn’t ask questions. The look on Kassia’s face had him worried---she never took that expression when things were fine.


~Kalain and I left Sleek and Chato in the kennels. They must have gotten out somehow--they feel close, but somewhere dark. They’ve been tied up.~ Unashamed, Tam blinked tears back even as he heard the gold wher command Chato to keep quiet. 


~There’s a gold wher telling them to keep quiet, and we don’t know where they are, but it’s dark. Maybe a tent?~ 


He heard screams and thought he saw some large felines run by. ~Watch out, there are big felines loose. I wonder if they’re related.~


Flash, meanwhile, was at a distinct disadvantage since he rarely talked to someone else. He placed a forepaw on Insera’s arm and looked in her eyes, trying to show her the Gather from Tamalak’s point of view, and his fear because his flit-eater had been hurt. Or taken. It was at the Gather, and it was bad, and Tamalak was upset.


Brogan just wasn’t that smart to translate the whole conversation, but he did his best. ~Sleek  and Chato whers leave Tam and ‘lain. Twolegs hurt. Somewhere dark. Lost.~ 


“Okay, okay. Tell Tam and Kalain to meet at the front of the Gather. I’ll get some guards.” Kass grabbed M’gal’s hand. “We need to get some guards.”


Insera got flashes of images of Tam and confusion in the Gather. It was enough for her to reach for Sorrel. 


“Sorrel, find out what’s wrong with Tam.”


~Tam, what wrong?~


Oh, thank Faranth. Another one. He’d hesitated to talk to Insera’s wher, because she was his teacher. Brogan was merely another wher. If he’d stopped to think, he would have realized just how silly he was being. Bespeaking Sorrel would have been the more prudent move.


~Chato and Sleek got out. They’re here, and someone else has them.~ He did learn from his mistakes. He was too detailed with Brogan. He probably should have been more detailed with Sorrel. 


“Sorrel and Brogan know now. And Brogan said to meet Kassia by the entrance. I think she’s getting guards.”


M’gal reached out and took Kassia’s hand. “I’ll go get the guards while you go find Kalain,” he said. They weren’t that far away--he could get them quickly.


“Hurry,” Kassia told M’gal. She took her own guard toward the front gate.


Meanwhile Sorrel was passing on the message to Insera.


“Can you get anything more specific from Sleek and Chato? Any images?” Insera asked.


~Show more?~ Sorrel asked.


~Chato, Sleek, can you show anything else?~ Tam said.


Chato was miserable, and he couldn’t even huddle in misery. They were trussed like wherrys and stuck in a cage. In another cage near them was a green like Darling Girl, but not as pretty or healthy. One of his fronds reached out to Sleek’s, twining with hers. 


~In cage. Ugly men captured us.~ He showed Tamalak the weasely guy, and the other one. ~Girl wher called other Mar’on. Maybe you find?~ He couldn’t think of anything else, then had a flash of insight. ~Canine looked weird.~ He showed Tamalak the canine with wings. 


“How would a canine get wings?” Tamalak asked out loud. “That makes no sense.”


~Canine looked like this. Ask Sleek. She tell.~


Sleek showed a picture of the weird gold with the extra legs. Just then there was a scream. Kalain looked behind him and  a striped wild feline streaked past down the aisle from Tam and Kalain.


“That can’t be a coincidence. They have to be back that way. You go look that way, I’m going to go get the Weyrwoman and the guards.”


Tam nodded, and followed the trail of destruction. He could feel like he was getting closer; Chato and Sleek felt close. It could be his imagination; then he saw colorful posters showing a man swallowing a flaming sword, a woman in wings on a trapeze...and a six-legged wher. 


“Ah-ha!” he said. The next picture was of a canine with wings. He ah-ha’d again. Then he saw a weaselly looking man coming out of a tent. Waiting until the man was gone, he went in.


It was dark. There were a couple cages laying on their sides, and these, he assumed, were where the felines came from. A miserable-looking gold wher was being forced to stand in her cage. Because her extra pair of legs were fake. He scowled. 


“Hey, Lady, talk to me,” he said gently, careful not to touch the cage. He wanted to reach in and pet her, but that could easily lose him a hand. “You know my friends, Chato and Sleek.  Where are they? We can take you away, too,” he offered. “You don’t deserve this treatment.”


The freak-show had been a sudden flurry of activity. The cage that Sleek and Chato had been unceremoniously thrown into was hastily covered with sheets and deliberately moved in amongst the others so that it was less obvious. A couple of the guards had shot out after the escaped felines, raising crossbows and swearing as the beasts ducked into a nearby field and began sprinting across, jubilant to feel springy grass beneath their paws.


Lowric and Marleno, their new “assets” in hand, had abruptly left the tent in order to bring some semblance of order to their camp. Several performers ran up, clearly about to ask questions but abruptly turned tail and walked off again at the look on Lowric’s face.


As quiet settled about the tent, the gold had slumped in her harness. She wasn’t happy but a growl came from her when she spotted Tamalak. (( Not here. Go’way! Gold Girl says go’way! )) It was a paltry attempt of being fierce, her eyes whirling masses of orange and yellow, unaware of the abject and utter misery she projected into the young man’s mind, not knowing that he would hear it all, even the words she didn’t know how to say.


Kalain reached the front entrance as Kassia did. “They’re that way,” he said.


“We’re just waiting on guards,” Kass said. “M’gal went to get them.


Meanwhile Insera recognized the weird side show and was rounding up a couple of guards with whers hanging about the Wherhall tent as well.


M’gal returned with the guards, red faced and flushed. The guards were also breathing heavily, but their faces were grim and they waited for Kassia’s instructions.


For the second time that day, tears came to Tamalak’s eyes. “Gold Girl,” he said quietly, “You’re a good wher. I know you don’t mean any harm, and whoever you’re bonded to doesn’t deserve you. We can give you a much better home back at the Weyr.” He sighed and looked around the tent. The one thing he wanted to do was the one thing he shouldn’t--open the cage and let Gold Girl out. The last thing the Gather needed was an unhappy wher along with the felines.


“At least take your compulsion off our whers so they can answer me,” he asked quietly. Raising his voice, he called for them. “Sleek! Chato! Are you back here?”


Unhappy or not, she had been given an order. And Gold Girl had learned, as the old scars on her legs showed, that she had learned the hard way when she didn’t do as she was told. Why should she trust kindness? Kindness had been used before, as a cruel way to mask cruelty. Kindness couldn’t be trusted because Gold Girl knew that the whip would follow.


(( Through back. Through flaps. Stranger look there. ))


“Thank you. And you will be helped,” Tamalak said. He might get in trouble for it, but he was going to help that poor wher. No one should treat their wher like that.


He went through the back flaps, and stared in dismay at all the cages. What kind of meat market was this place selling? He’d heard of this place before, but never as something heinous. But there were covered cages, rustling, and the smell. Oh, Faranth! The smell. 


He quicly went down the rows, yanking covers off cages and looking in the eyes of various beasts. Normal canines and felines. Tunnelsnakes. Wherries. A few wher-pups, some wher eggs, and…


“Chato! Sleek!” He looked inside the cage in dismay. His beloved tunnel-wher, his sweet and playful Chato, was wrapped up like a meatroll. He opened the cage and began to untie their bonds.


Sleek started struggling against the bonds as soon as she saw Tam. She wagged her tail in excitement and her fronds stood straight out.


On the other side of the Gather, help was on the way. From one direction Insera came with Sorrel, while from the front Kassia came with M’gal and her guards. 


Flash popped into the tent and chittered at Tam, letting him know help was on the way.


“You know where I’m at,” he said. “Lead them here. They need to see this.” He got Sleek unfettered first, then moved on to Chato. If Kalain had been there, he would have taken his own, but Sleek was scared enough without having to stay tied up one moment longer.


As his eyes scanned the cages, he saw Darling Girl. “Is Darling Girl here too?” he asked. 


~No. ~ Chato looked over at the cage. ~Not ‘ling Girl. Stone.~


“Oy, oy!” Came a loud and clearly annoyed voice coming out of the one of the tents as Lowric stepped out to face the gathering assembly. “This section is for the caravan only. You’re not allowed in ‘ere. Clear out. The lot of you.” The young man glared sullenly at them, fingering the kosh at his belt as Marleno stepped out behind him, “He’s right, this part’s private for us folk only. You want the main tent over there. The girls are about to come out.”

(( In here! In here! In here! ))


The sudden mental bellow, accompanied by a wher’s howl was unexpected and klaxon-like. Gold Girl could smell the strangers gathering outside, could sense the anxious tension on the air. Something was afoot. Something to do with these strangers and their strange pups.


Tam heard GoldGirl, but he needed to finish untying his own whers. 


“There!” he said, undoing the last knot. He turned to go, but thought better of it. “Sleek, if I let the green out, she doesn’t look too good, could you get her to follow you?” He didn’t want to waste an opportunity like getting another one of these whers. He was also going to let Gold Girl out of her confinement. Gather be threaded, no wher deserved this.


~Sleek take Stone.~ she said, shaking herself out now that she was free. She gave a huff of relief, but her fear hadn’t entirely evaporated.


Tamalakl opened Stone’s cage. “You need to come with us,” he said softly. “ You need medical attention--I don’t think they’re feeing you right. These are Sleek and Chato. They’ll be taking care of you.” No one else was in the tent, so he felt safe going back to the front where Gold Girl was. 


“I’m letting you out,” he said to her. “I know you don’t belong to me, but you don’t look comfortable. I’d like you to come back with us. And I’d really like you to not hurt me.” He didn’t think she would; she was being forced to do all kinds of demeaning stuff, and her Bonded seemed to be alive. 


He unhooked the sling, then carefully took the apparatus--heavy--holding the legs off. “Shards,” he said in disgust. “This is just obscene.” 


~Sorrel? Brogan? Are you close? I sent Flash to look for you and lead you here. We’re bringing out a couple of friends.~


The gold snapped, but it was the defiant posturing of an animal blustering. The behaviour of convincing they were big and strong and scary. Even the sound of the cage door opening had seen the animal pushing back in the harness, flinching away from a blow she expected to come, only to regard Tamalak with suspicion when it didn’t. The distrust would have been palpable, a prickling, roiling mass of emotion as she grunted and stamped, her small wings flaring as she  blustered at Tamalak. There were no words, just a bubbling wave of emotion. Tamalak would have felt it all.


~Stone come with Sleek and Chato~ Sleek called to the green tunnelwher while outside help arrived.


Insera and Sorrel came up first with a couple of guards with whers and Kassia and M’gal with Kalain and a few regular guards. The whole group barged into the tent and looked around.


“Tam?” Insera called.


As the group barrelled past, Lowric looked murderous. “You can’t feckin’ go in there!!” he bellowed, nudging Marleno hard. “Go get Barnum. NOW idiot!” Marleno jogged off towards the larger caravan, shouting for the caravan leader as he did.


“In here,” Tam called back,. He felt like he was surrounded by whers. Actually, he was. And oddly enough, it made him feel safe.


“All of you are going to be fine,” Tamalak said. “I’ll take care of you.”


“Fan out,” Insera said. The guards and their whers began to spread out while Kassia and her guards took up the rear.


Sleek, sensing Kalain nearby, broke free and sprinted through the group toward her handler. ~’lain! ‘Lain! Sleek and Chato here!~


Good, Kalain was safe. He didn’t know why he thought that-he’d been the one to go into a strange tent, after all. But Kalain was his best friend and he didn’t want anything to happen to him.


Chato wanted to go greet Kalain too, but he wanted to stay by Tam. He pressed up against Tam’s leg, almost making the boy stumble. Tam reached down and pet him. ~Chato good boy. Gold Girl good girl. Stone good girl,~ he reinforced the two strange whers, trying to keep them calm.


The gold huffed, whuffling noisily at the air. As Chato appeared, she lowed softly, a deep, bellowing sound that didn’t have the volume of a roar. If anything it was more akin to that of a bovine calling for her young. (( Strangers no out! Strangers hide! Mar’no no see! ‘Ric no see! Strangers hide! )) Gold Girl was agitated, flinching every time Tamalak’s hands brushed near her and she chomped at the air,  baring her teeth and continuing to chunter and growl noisily. Fear. There was so much fear. Fear that the two-legs couldn’t be trusted. Fear that it was all a trick.


“Insera, you need to get in here now,” Tam called, holding his head. He didn’t know how much more he could take of her projecting her fear. He needed a stronger handler.


Insera followed the call with Sorrel at her side. She came to a stop at the sight of the gold. Sorrel sniffed at her curiously.


~This wher Sorrel. Who wher?~ he called. 


“Easy,” Insera called projecting calmly. 


Kalain came back with her, Sleek with him and returning to press against Chato’s side. ~’Sera no hurt Gold Girl. ‘Sera good. Tam good. ‘Lain good.~


Suddenly surrounded by strange whers was creating a strange combination of curiosity and trepidation. But the experienced eyes of Insera would likely realise there was another reason the gold was leaning heavily against the cage side instead of moving freely. Her hind legs were withered and weak looking. So the gold relied on vocal intimidation rather than free moving aggression. The young two-leg, though he piqued her curiosity by being able to speak to her, was nervous. But this older one, they were calmer and the wher eyed Insera warily.


(( Am Gold Girl…. )) It was offered hesitantly, cautiously. But the presence of an adult, healthy male had caught the gold’s attention. It was only natural. (( Why here? Not ‘llowed! ))


Tam had to laugh. “None of us are allowed here,” he said. “But Chato looks to me, and Sleek looks to Kalain there, and we couldn’t let them be put in cages. Or taken away from us. Right?”


~Get Gold Girl free ~ Sorrel said. “We’re going to get you out of here,” Insera said, having the benefit of only Sorrel’s side of the conversation. At least the gold wasn’t attacking, but it looked like she’d have a hard time to do it to start with given the state of her hind legs.


“Hurry up,” Kassia called from out front.


Free. That was a word she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. Dreams like freedom had been given up on long ago when the cage doors remained firmly locked. The gold inspected Sorrel firmly, puffing up slightly like a gold issuing orders. (( New wher true? )) she had demanded of him, her mind-voice filled with the instruction that he was to be honest. That she was the gold and she was the one who was to be told the truth. Regardless of who he looked to.


Tam nodded to the curtain divinding the tent. “There are a bunch of where pups and eggs back there. I’m not sure if they’re on the up and up or what,” he added to Insera.


~’Sera take Gold Girl~ Sorrel said. ~Gold Girl come.~ It was true as far as he was concerned.


“Show me,” Insera said.


Tamalak took her back through the curtain so she could see the rows upon rows of cages, where there were all different animals. Cages of whers. Cages with wher eggs, though who knew if they’d hatch. Cages of canines, felines, wherries, even some chickens! Tunnelsnakes were in containers they couldn’t get out of. It was a mess.

Outside where Kassia was, M’gal stood next to her, looking around. He’d been inside the main tents and everything had looked fine. The performers were good, the exhibits were either horrendous or laughable. But this area seemed different somehow. He was going to go in after Insera, but didn’t want to leave Kass out alone. “Maybe we should go in too,” he whispered to her. He didn’t like the look of that one guy--looked like a tunnelsnake. Acted like one too.


Tentatively, Gold Girl took a clumsy step forward on legs that clearly weren’t all that used to not being cramped up in a cage. Suspicion still came off her in waves and if she had to, she’d die fighting. But even a wher as tired and afraid as she was could see the window of opportunity had opened. And she didn’t know how long for. (( Make safe. )) she demanded of Sorrell, lumbering heavily towards him.


“Feck,” Insera said. “This isn’t right at all. Who’s in charge all of this?” She motioned to guards near the whelp cages. “Start looking for whoever is in charge.”


Outside, Marleno had come back with Barnem, who looked around at the crowd, confused. “What’s going on here,” he asked, as if Marleno hadn’t said anything. He’d picked up Marleno over the past few Turns, and while Lowey was one of the next-generation Barnems-in-Training, this Barnem wasn’t happy with him.


M’gal stepped forward. “We have two young wherhandler apprentices who happened to Impress a new breed of wher. Their whers came to the Gather looking for them, and these two caged them.” He motioned inside the tent. “One of our more senior journeyman handlers is in there now--one of our boys called her in because something’s wrong inside.” His voice had gotten grim.


“And before you go accusing our apprentices of making things up, remember who you’re talking to.” The Weyrleader mantle may have been taken off of him, but he still wore its ghost.


Barnem had paled at the mention of things in the tent. This area--he stayed away from. He didn’t want to know what was going on in here. “It seems that my associates,” he glared at Lowric and Marleno, “have been doing things behind my back. I’ll have them arrested. Please, have a look inside and tell me what you want to do.”


Once events calmed down, Marleno and Lowey were arrested for ‘training’ and trafficking in fighting animals, a side business they had started without Barnem’s knowledge (or so he said.) 


Tamalak, Kalain and Insera headed back to the Wherhall. This Gather was ended for the boys.




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