Throughout this Furcadian world known as the Dragonlands, there are the Furres, who walk upon two legs, and there are the birds and reptiles, which are hunted or farmed for food. It is said that the Primes of Light created the Furres, before they parted company with the Dark Primes.
If fur-bearing creatures running upon four legs are seen, they are normally assumed to be the products of vilest magic. They are always hunted, for that is their curse. However, there is one place they are not always hated and feared, and that is, in the primitive provinces of Drakoria, far to the west.
It was 'The Winter Tears Froze On the Face.' Everyone in the tribe was a grassblade's thickness away from starving. They lived in danger of attack by Raukor, Eetrox, Leotaur, and more. Here, as even small furrelings know, it is the furre's lot in life to be food for many other creatures. That is the way of things.
Wrapped in clothes made of woven feathers, the wolf-lady Sah-may-may of the Aka Kota was hunting alone. Her name meant "Very Serious", and she liked to be the best at anything she could do. She was only thirteen, but she was already one of the best with spear-thrower. There, up ahead, walked a snow-kiwi, so she stealthily raised the long dart-spear to above her shoulder.
Was she beautiful? Maybe. Her brown hair was never brushed. She hid her face with leaves tied to woven netting to make it harder for prey to see her. Her boyfriend Teh-gla-ri liked to say, "Night makes all women beautiful," but even he had never seen her face.
The snow-kiwi began scratching at the snow with its feet, a sign that it smelled food underneath. Sah-may-may cast the flexible spear; it flew with the proper wobbling movement. The tip struck the kiwi like a stormbird diving into water; it was dead before it could make a sound.
Sah-may-may ran, the sinew nets on oval frames strapped to her feet keeping her above the snow. When she reached the kiwi, she lifted it by a leg and, with a small chip of sharpened stone, she ritually offered its blood to Suffrith, Sharpener of the Senses. Then Sah-may-may cut it open and pulled back her hunting veil to eat the steaming liver, the hunter's due. Oh, so soft and delicious!
It was without warning that blue snakes erupted from the ground to grab the Aka Kota huntress. Sah-may-may gave an enraged scream and beat at them with her free hand, not ready to let go of the precious bird carcass yet.
The icy ground broke open and a slender panther-furre appeared, her white fangs bared as she laughed. Her arms were crossed before her bare bosom. The panther woman wore no clothes or ornaments, yet she appeared not the least bit cold.
Sah-may-may gasped to see this strange being had no fur on her lean body. All Aka Kota are wolves; they know of other kinds of Furre but almost never meet them, so Sah-may-may did not know a feline when she saw one.
Countless pale scars criss-crossed that dark blue skin. Then the wolf furre realized that the things circling her body were some of this monster's many tails. One was around her waist; one was around her shoulders; one bound her ankles tightly together. Sah-may-may fell over with a thump on the blood-spattered snow.
The wolf-furre resumed furiously trying to cut through the tails with her hand-length flint knife. She could not mar the smooth hide. The blue panther-lady hooted and cackled merrily, a toss of her head sending a ripple through her long frosty-blue hair.
Then, in the Aka Kota's own language, the blue-skinned one said, "Stop! Stop! Or I will hurt myself laughing so hard!" Sah-may-may ignored her and kept sawing with the little knife.
So, the tails tightened until Sah-may-may found she could not expand her lungs. In fear and pain, Sah-may-may was finally forced to drop her knife. The world was growing darker when the tails relaxed- but only a small amount. The tails claimed Sah-may-may's possessions as spoils-of-war. The tall she-cat wiped a tear of hilarity from a yellow eye without pupil, and said, "Much better. So. What is your name?"
The tribal wolf-furre remembered her warrior's lineage, and spoke the proper ritual boast, "It is Sah-may-may's knife that will cut your throat." She glared back, not expecting this alien who knew her language to give her own name, as would be proper even between deadly enemies.
To Sah-may-may's surprise, her captor said, "It is Lokira's claws that will make snowshoe strings of your guts." Then the furless demon said sweetly, "...but not today. No, today, I have a different game to play with you. Do you pledge on your honor not to run away? Or must I crush the air out of you and leave your bones for the Raukors to pick?"
The war stories told by the elders spoke of this choice. She could die a warrior, or she could live as a slave. Sah-may-may had always told herself, it would be best to die. To be a slave would be a deep disgrace to the Aka Kota. How could she live with herself if she surrendered? Would it not be better to perish, and for her soul to go on to Suffrith's paradise?
Then Sah-may-may realized that she had never really accepted the old tales as true. She sacrificed blood in the ancient hunting ritual to Suffrith, of course-- everybody did. But, she did not, in her heart, believe.
She looked down. She was still gripping the dead bird by the neck. In her mind, she saw the faces of her hungry kinfolk, for whom this snow-kiwi would mean two more weeks of life. After that, they might still all die of hunger, but until then, every moment was precious. The true surrender was in choosing death; only in life was there any hope.
Sah-may-may decided she desperately wanted to live. She gulped, and forced herself to speak. Her voice was raspy, not at all normal, as she said, "I give my word."
Without another sound, Lokira released the she-wolf. Sah-may-may was aware the snowy ground was sucking precious warmth from her body, so she stood.
The blue panther pointed at the space behind Sah-may-may. When the Aka Kota huntress turned, there, on the ground, was a huge fluffy bird-pelt with a round bare patch at its center. This display of strange magic filled the Aka Kota with deep dread; she did not understand it.
Sah-may-may could see there were dicing bones and the square design for playing N'Jom, a traditional wagering game. Without a word, they each took a seat.
"So. I see you know this game." the she-panther said casually. "I wager four things. Your knife. Your spear-thrower with dart. Your freedom... and a boon that one such as I can grant. You do not know my name but I am Suffrith's sister."
The revered name sent a prickle up Sah-may-may's nape. Suffrith was supposed to be a great power of the universe but Sah-may-may had never heard of Lokira. Before she could stop herself, Sah-may-may demanded, "How do I know this is true?"
"Did I not conjure this great bird skin from nothing?" said Lokira.
Sah-may-may said, without a smile, "That only proves you can perform magic."
The freakish blue panther with the many lashing tails threw her head back to roar with laughter again. "Oh, daughter of the Aka Kota, you are unusually hard to impress! Never mind who I am. It is not important. For the fourth stake, I offer to use my conjuring skills to grant you a wish."
The wolf huntress considered, then nodded. She said, "I wager only three things. My veil of leaves and net. This snow-kiwi. My shirt of woven feathers."
With a nod, Lokira laid possessions in a line across from Sah-may-may's, a small handful of beads standing for Sah-may-may's freedom. They took the bones between their paws and tossed them, counting the circular marks and moving counters on the N'Jom grid.
Along the way there were choices to be made. N'Jom was a game of skill as well as luck. Sah-may-may had never taken any pleasure in gambling games, but she had enjoyed the thinking part of it. She played shrewdly, cautiously.
Sah-may-may's pebble reached the first wide line. Lokira smiled and pushed the stone knife towards Sah-may-may, signifying that it had been won back. They played onwards. Several throws later, Lokira was smiling a little less, and she pushed the spear-thrower back towards Sah-may-may as well.
Seeing that the unkempt huntress was so far ahead, Lokira began to play with more abandon. She moved her pebble along the risky path that promised a high return. She told Sah-may-may, "You have already won twice, so, I know you have used up your luck."
The huntress saw the blue panther was becoming more desperate. She was tempted to try the same strategy herself. She worried that her caution might cost her the game. She resisted, though, and kept to the slow track.
Eventually, it came down to a single throw of the bones for each. Lokira crowed triumphantly, "There!" as she scored enough points to make it difficult for Sah-may-may to win. The wolf felt her heart thudding harder and harder, as if at the back of her throat.
As Sah-may-may cast the bones for the final throw, her paws trembled, for the third stake was her freedom. The bones all showed pairs of dots, and Sah-may-may called out the traditional name for the configuration, "Flock-of-crows!" She was free!
"No!" Lokira exclaimed and she punched the thick feather rug in dismay.
The Aka Kota huntress scooped the beads up and put them into her neck-pouch. "I give you to the count of four-hundred. After that, if I see you, I will kill you!" She trusted in her own skills; she knew that not much could survive her spear-thrower and dart.
The blue-skinned panther's tails twisted and untwisted in agitation. She said, "Wait, let us play one more round." Sah-may-may had already fit the dimpled end of the long spear to the matching peg on the thrower. Lokira said, "All of your things, against my boon!" Then she waved both of her hands, and said, "See."
This time, when Sah-may-may turned, there were eight low tables made of planks, each covered with wooden troughs piled high with food. There were heaps of hot grain mixed with fat and salt, little fried cakes made from sweet crushed acorns, bowls of fruit (fresh despite the season), smoked fish, mounds of spiced and juicy beb-krah meat. Sah-may-may's eyes went wide. With this, her people need not go hungry...
The Aka Kota huntress turned, and walked back to the thick feather-fur. She put her goods down on one side, and picked up the bones.
The blue panther lady picked up a sweet orange root from the banquet, and placed it opposite Sah-may-may's possessions.
They played one more game, rolling and passing the N'Jom bones back and forth between them. Again, Lokira moved her pebble along the chancy path, but Sah-may-may held to her slower way. The bones gave Lokira a poor score. The wolf's pebble moved steadily on the grid towards the winning line. Finally, it was so far ahead that there was no way for Lokira to catch up.
"Impossible!" the blue panther railed, throwing the offending N'Jom bones far into the sky. "To win four times in a row is impossible!"
The Aka Kota huntress shook her head, "no, just rare." She picked up the delicious-smelling roasted root.
With salvaged dignity, Lokira stood herself back up, but all her serpentine tails writhed independently, and one of her white upper fangs was bared. She said, in a grumbling manner, "Name your boon, Serious One. An unconquerable weapon? Beauty such that all malefurres fall down at your feet in wonder?"
The huntress replied, "My people must never want for food ever again." Even if the sorceress could not grant such a thing, she was still honor-bound to fulfill it to the best of her ability, and Sah-may-may did not doubt that she would try.
The blue panther lady made a dismissive gesture towards Sah-may-may, and said easily, "...Done." Once again, she crossed her arms before her chest.
The wolf huntress nodded and triumphantly brought the roasted root to her jaws and bit into it. For some reason, this was the most amazingly delicious thing she had ever tasted. Whatever she was, this panther-witch was a fine cook. As she took a second bite, it seemed to be growing larger and larger. She glanced over at Lokira, who had lost her previous irritation and was now smiling slyly at her.
Sah-may-may felt her clothing swallow her up as the ground dropped away below her. She struggled out of the woven feather shirt, no longer a wolf furre, and, indeed, no longer even a furre.
Her hands had turned to clumsy paws. She was crouching on four limbs instead of two. All the sounds around her were too keen and her ears felt enormous atop her head. Whereas before, the array of food had smelled wonderful, now it was burnt and disgusting, especially the meat. Worst of all, Sah-may-may found it hard to think. Everything was confusing, frightening. She hopped from the heap of clothing, and began to run...
This new form, called Ferian Rabben, was swift. Effortlessly it bounced over the snow with its long hind legs. It was a creature that none of the Aka Kota wolf-people had seen before. It had fur, like a person, yet, like a bird or serpent, it was not intelligent.
Being desperately hungry, they brought it down with a spear. To their delight, it was yummy, and nourishing. Realizing it was a gift from the Mighty Ones such as Lokira, they made a practice of burying the skin and bones with honor.
Strangely, they never saw more than one. One moon after they ate it, another one just like it would always appear. As even small furrelings know, there is no need to understand.
It is just the way of things.
Rules for N'Jom can be found here: http://www.thegenieslamp.com/furcle/