by Gene Wolf
Getting up from the couch where he was sitting with his mate, Fred Puma looked at his three kits scampering around the living room, much to the amusement of the adults, and called out, “OK you three! Time for bed so we can have time for adult conversation!” He winked at his mate and guests and, heading towards the stairs leading to the upstairs bedrooms, growled in mock fierceness. “I’m the hungry Wolf, and I’m going to get you!”
Shrieking and giggling at the same time, three kits bolted for the stairs, and three fluffed white tails were out of sight in a heartbeat. Fred turned to his guests, one a Wolf, and smiling weakly explained, “It’s a game we have. It gets them into bed, and I don’t have to argue with them that it’s not time yet.” He looked at his mate and said, “Please entertain our guests for a few minutes. I’ll be back down as soon as I get them tucked in.” Fred then walked up the stairs, growling loudly, eliciting more shrieks and giggles from the kits already in their bed upstairs.
Walking slowly into the bedroom, growling softly and playfully, the Puma saw all three of his daughters in their bed with blankets pulled up over their heads, giggling wildly. Fred stopped growling and waited silently, hardly breathing, until the kits were quiet and about to peek over the blankets to see if he had left. When he saw the first tips of ears come out from under the covers, he pounced on the bed, bringing ear splitting shrieks and squeals. As the triplets pulled the covers down from over their heads, Veera hugged her father and asked, “Can we have a story? Please!!?? It’s still early and we really were good!”
Fred took his normal story time seat in the chair next to the bed and looked lovingly at his daughters. They looked all the world like their mother—long white ears with pink on the inside and beautiful silky white fur. Each had their mother’s fluffed white tail too. Three pairs of beautiful deep brown eyes, also like their mother’s, looked back at him expectantly, and he melted. “OK, but a short one. I have company downstairs, and I need to get back to them to talk about adult stuff.”
“More inventions?” asked Shalla.
“Probably food stuff!” said Larna. “Aunt Genna loves cooking. She makes the best food at the tavern!”
“Nah,” said Veera, straightening and trying to look far older than her six years and either of her triplet siblings. “Probably going to talk about kissy stuff. Adults are like that.”
Fred, surprised, looked at his precocious daughter and asked, “Kissy stuff? Where did you ever get that idea?”
Veera looked at her father very seriously, as though he were slow witted, and explained, imparting the wisdom of the world in only the way a six-year old can do. “From you and mommy. Sometimes you do kissy stuff in the kitchen, and when I walk in, you stop.” Seeing the surprise on her father’s face, she continued, “So I think you want to talk about it when we’re not around.” She crossed her arms on her chest and looked at him as though daring him to try to argue with her infallible logic.
Fred laughed loudly. “You’re right. We want to talk about kissy stuff.” The answer brought a smile to Veera’s face and a chorus of “Ewwwws” from her two siblings. “Now, what story do you want tonight?”
As one they shouted, “The First Groundling Skydancer! Pleeeeease?”
The Puma looked at his daughters and said, “Haven’t you heard that story enough? I’ve told it at least a hundred times.” He looked at the faces starting to show disappointment—all except for Veera who looked determined. He continued, “Don’t you want to hear something different?”
They all started answering at once, “Noooooo! It’s our favorite!”
“It’s the bestest story in the world!”
“It has you and mommy in it, and Aunt Genna and Uncle George too! Please?”
“We’ll go right to sleep! We all promise!”
Three heads bobbed up and down and three pairs of deep brown eyes looked back at him hopefully. He melted once again and said, “OK, OK, The First Groundling Skydancer it is!” You would have thought he had promised them the world when they all cheered then snuggled together under the covers and quieted immediately so their father could begin the story.
“Once upon a time there was an inventor Wolf.” he began.
“That’s Uncle George!” Veera added helpfully.
“Shhhhh!” Larna chided. “We know who it is.”
Fred grinned and continued, “And there was his good friend, the handsome and intelligent Puma.”
“That’s you!” Shalla helped, to shushes from her sisters.
Fred looked at his daughters, smiling, and asked, “Do you want me to tell this story or do you want to tell it?”
They all put their hands to their mouths promising to be quiet, and he continued, “Now, where was I? Oh yeah, there once was an inventor Wolf and his good friend Puma…”
George muttered to himself as he stretched the fabric tightly over the bamboo frame. “C’mon, George, just a little more,” he said to himself. “You leave this loose and it starts fluttering, next thing you know it’ll rip and then where will you be?” Of course he knew where he’d be, but he didn’t want to think about that.
Getting the fabric finally where he wanted it, he held it in place until the adhesive he had applied to the bamboo reacted with the compound he had smeared over the edge of the fabric. When they were held together for a few seconds, they combined forming a bond as tight as granite. When it was in place, George moved farther down the frame and repeated the process with the next section of cloth.
“Anybody in here?” he heard a familiar voice call. “George, you hiding in here?”
“Yeah, c’mon in Fred. You can help me actually,” George called out while stretching the next section of fabric tightly.
Fred Puma walked through the double doors of the large barn-like building George called his workshop. Pushed to the sides of the room were many of George’s past inventions Fred recognized. His pumpkin launcher, the turnip picker and something that looked ever so much like a spider that George called his water walker. All of these past inventions had been moved to the walls of the workshop to make room for the enormous contraption George was currently working on.
“What in blazes is that?” Fred asked his friend in stunned awe. He was always interested in what George was working on because the Wolf had quite the imagination. Unlike other inventors Fred knew, George’s contraption mostly worked. Mostly.
George, holding the fabric in place until the holding compound on the fabric hardened, asked without turning around, “You like it?”
“Like it?” Fred asked laughingly, “Maybe I would if I knew what it was supposed to be.”
“I call it my Wolfwings,” George said proudly. “I’ve always wanted to be able to fly. These will allow me to do just that!”
Fred looked skeptically at his friend. “Fly? You mean like up in the air, like a bird?”
Satisfied the adhesive had set, George turned around and looked at the Puma. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.”
Fred replied, sounding concerned for his friend. “Are you nuts?” He looked at the huge contraption and then back at the Wolf. “You’ll be killed! You’ll be smeared all over the landscape!”
George’s ears drooped with disappointment. “Well, thanks for the show of support. Glad you like my new invention.” He grabbed a rag from a nearby workbench and started cleaning his paws. “I would have thought my best friend would at least say it was an interesting idea.”
Fred had known George since they were cubs together, and they were best friends. He knew when George was hurt, and that pain was easy to read now. He replied, trying to smooth things over. “Look George, you’re my best friend. It’s not that I don’t think the idea is great, I honestly do, but this sounds dangerous. I would hate to see you splattered across the landscape. Who else would go to the tavern with me and comment on the serving wenches there?”
George chuckled, feeling better. “Yeah, well, I’m sure someone would. You really think it’s a good idea?”
Fred looked at the contraption. To him it looked like a bat—a really large bat. “The idea sounds great. Really. I suspect those of us who can’t fly have always wanted to at some point. But what if this works like your underwater breathing invention?”
George cringed at the mention of that. In the town ofBig Flats, where they lived, a lazy river meandered through the wide valley. Millions of years ago it had carved this valley out of the small mountains of the area. The valley was wide and flat with the deep river slowly making its way through the center. The sides of the valley were steep, and most furs lived on those hillsides to avoid the rare flooding of the river. Once, George had the idea to build a helmet he could wear under the river’s deep waters. There was a long tube attached that floated on the surface. It worked great, and the glass panel he had built into the front of the helmet allowed him to see everything under the water clearly. He once tested the helmet in deep water near the center of the river, and the glass panel blew in. He had almost drowned. Fred had quickly swam to George’s rescue even though he hated water! George tried to excuse the failure by asking how he was supposed to know the pressure was that strong under water.
Shaking off the memory of that failure, George smiled and, looking at his latest invention, said, “Well, at least I can’t drown. I’ll be in the air and be able to breath just fine.”
Shaking his head, knowing his friend wouldn’t be dissuaded, Fred asked, “Have you tested this? Do you know if it will work?”
George looked at the Puma, saying, “No, that’s how you can help.”
“I’m not getting in that thing!” the Puma said, his ears flattening back against his head. “Not in a million years!”
“Scaredy cat!” George said with good humor in his voice. “No, I don’t want you to get in it. I want you to help me test it.” George saw doubt on his friend’s face and said, “Look, there’s a good breeze outside today. I want to tie a long rope to this, I’ll get in, and you fly me like a kite. That way I can make sure it’ll work and not be too far off the ground if it doesn’t.”
Fred thought about it and realized it was actually a good idea. If the thing fell apart, George wouldn’t be hurt too badly, and if it didn’t, they’d know they could work up to greater heights. “You know, that would work!” Fred said nodding. “I could hold you off the ground ten or twenty feet, and we could make sure this stays together. There are a few gusts out there, and that would stress it too. If anything breaks, you can drop and we can fix it.”
George smiled. He had always been able to count on his friend for support, even if the Puma sometimes doubted the Wolf’s brainstorms, “Let’s go get a little lunch at the tavern before we start. I want to have a full stomach before trying this. I’ll need all my strength,” he said grinning, then added, “and maybe just a little liquid courage before we get started.”
“What’s liquid courage, Daddy?” Shalla asked sleepily.
“It’s like milk for adults.” Veera answered when her father hesitated at the explanation. “It makes them strong. Right, Daddy?”
The Puma chuckled. “That’s as good an explanation as any, honey,” he said rubbing the fur on the top of her head, relieved he didn’t have to explain any further. Veera looked at her sisters, grinning.
“Now, where was I?” Fred asked.
You were going to help Uncle George—I mean the inventor Wolf, fly his new invention!”
“No, that comes later. They were going to the tavern to have some of Aunt Genna’s delicious food!” Larna objected.
“OK, quiet down you three,” Fred said picking up the story where he had left off. “The inventor Wolf wanted to go get something to eat—”
“And drink. He wanted to be strong!” Veera added helpfully.
Nodding, he added, “And drink…”
Walking into the tavern, the Puma and Wolf seated themselves at an empty table. It was late morning, and the tavern hadn’t filled with regulars yet. Everything in the tavern was rough hewn by Randor, the tavern owner himself. The Bear had moved into the area a few years back and thought Big Flats could use a good, friendly place for locals to gather. It was near the river, so the view outside the windows was picturesque.
Randor, accompanied by two of the most beautiful Rabbits Fred and George had ever seen, walked up to the table. Randor asked in his affable tone, “What can I get for you furs?”
George was staring at the two femmes with Randor as he stammered out, “Ummm, do you have, ummmm, meatloaf yet?”
Randor laughed recognizing George’s discomfort and answered, “Yes, actually, just came out of the oven.” He looked over at one of the femmes smiling at George and asked, “Lissa, could you go and get this good fur a large slice of meatloaf please?”
Lissa looked at George warmly, liking this Wolf immediately. She had been around many males, and not a few of them wolves, but this one’s shyness intrigued her. “Be glad to boss,” she said winking at George. As she turned to head to the kitchen, Randor added, “Oh, and please bring back a mug of ale.” Randor looked at George questioningly, and George nodded, his eyes fixed on the retreating Lissa.
“And you Fred?” Randor asked. “What can I get for you?”
Fred thought for a moment and asked, “Is a rare roast beef sandwich possible this early?”
Nodding, Randor turned to the Rabbit at his side and said, “Would you please get Fred here a rare roast beef sandwich Genna? I’m assuming a mug of ale for you as well Fred?” When Fred nodded, Randor added, “And a mug of ale.”
Genna headed off to the kitchen area. When she was gone, George said with true awe in his voice, “They are the most beautiful femmes I have ever seen Randor!”
Chuckling, the Bear replied, “Just hired them today. Teaching them the ropes so to speak and introducing them to the locals. Sisters, Genna and Lissa. I thought they’d help the traffic.”
Fred laughed. “Help? You’ll have to bolt the door to keep furs out once word of them spreads!”
The big Bear smiled. “That would be nice. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but I won’t complain if a few fur come in just for the scenery, and I don’t mean the river!”
George just stared at the door leading to the kitchen area. Fred had never seen that look on his friend’s face, and he asked, “You OK George? Not having second thoughts, are you?”
“Huh?” George asked, pulled out of private thoughts. “No. No! It’s just…” he looked at his friend and said, “Fred, I think I just met my mate.”
Randor laughed loudly at hearing this. “George, George. Be careful with those two! Good femmes they are. Known their mother for years. If they’re anything like her, they’re soft and pretty on the outside, but they know a line when they hear it and could kick you across the room if you ever tried to take advantage of them.”
“Take advantage…” George asked, confused. “Why would I even…” He didn’t finish because, as he was speaking, the door to the kitchen opened, and Genna and Lissa approached, each carrying the food ordered and a mug of ale. Setting the food down on the planks of the table, they both said, almost as one, “Is there anything else we can get for you?”
George just opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Fred reached across the table and, with a finger under George’s jaw, closed his mouth for him.
The femmes giggled, and Fred explained, “You’ll have to excuse the Wolf. He’s an inventor, and I think he’s a little worried about his latest invention. We’re going to make a few tests on it after we’re done here, and I think he’s just preoccupied.”
Genna was immediately interested. “You’re an inventor? Really?” She looked at Fred and asked skeptically, “You’re not making this up, are you?”
Fred chuckled, silently thinking to himself Randor’s warning was totally accurate. “No. Not in the slightest. George here has a barn full of inventions. He even invented a helmet that allows him to breathe underwater. Didn’t you, George?”
“Underwater? Are you the Wolf that nearly drowned last year?” Genna asked looking expectantly at George.
George’s ears flattened to the side of his head. He answered uncomfortably, totally embarrassed his friend had even brought that up, “Yeah. That was me.”
Genna almost purred. “Oh, you poor thing! You almost drowned after being so brave to walk under the river! I’ve never met a real inventor before!” As George’s ears straightened at the attention this beautiful femme was heaping on him, she asked, “What are you working on now?”
Realizing his friend was uncomfortable answering because the invention hadn’t been tested yet, Fred offered, “He calls it Wolfwings. He’s going to fly.”
George glared at his friend, but the look immediately softened as Genna asked excitedly, “Fly? Oh, that’s amazing! If you fly over the tavern would you wave to me? Please?!”
Fred chuckled knowing his friend was in deep trouble. He looked at Genna with complete adoration. She didn’t laugh at him like others had done when he mentioned one of his inventions but, instead, voiced complete confidence he could do it. She had asked him to wave at her. Total confidence. He knew in that instant his friend was in love.
“I, well, I—” George started.
“He’ll be glad to!” Fred added, helping his friend out. “It won’t be today. He’s only testing today. But someday, when he sails over, he’ll be happy to. Won’t you, George?” Fred asked grinning.
Regaining some composure, George answered, “Yes. I’ll be really happy to! You really want me to?” he asked, unsure he wasn’t just being toyed with.
“Oh yes!” Genna said quickly. “I’ve never known a Wolf to fly, and if you waved at me, it would be so wonderful!”
George smiled warmly. “Then I’ll definitely wave at you when I fly over, lovely femme.”
Genna smiled happily, and she seemed to bounce as she headed to another table where a group of furs were settling.
Lissa grinned at George as he watched Genna’s backside. She then looked at Fred and asked, “Anything else I can get for you, Puma?”
Fred grinned knowingly and replied quite innocently, “I could think of a few things, but I think this sandwich will do for now.”
The smile Lissa returned to the Puma contained a barely concealed warning when she said, “Be very careful what you wish for, Cat. You may find you’ve bitten off far more than you can chew.” With that, she turned and walked back towards the kitchen, her fluffed white tail swaying back and forth hypnotically.
George reached over and, pressing a finger under his chin, closed the Puma’s mouth for him.
“Did you used to take big bites of your food Daddy?” Shalla asked sleepily. “Mommy says if you do that, you can get an upset stomach. That’s why I always take really small bites.”
Fred looked at the kit in front of him and tried to figure out where that question came from, then he chuckled as he put it together, answering “Yes, I guess I did, little one. I don’t anymore.”
Fred and George walked back to the barn when they had finished their lunch. Both were feeling good. George was on cloud nine as he said, “I think she likes you, Fred.” When his friend looked at him doubtfully, he added, “No, really! I think she does! She wouldn’t have talked that way to you if she wasn’t interested.”
Fred wanted to believe the Wolf but, well, wolves were wolves and saw the best side of everything. Cats on the other hand were much more grounded. They didn’t believe anything until it was obvious, and sometimes not even then. “I don’t know,” Fred said unconvinced. “Femmes are like that. Especially Rabbit femmes. I think she was just being friendly so we keep coming back. Helps her keep her job.”
George looked at the Puma with obvious disbelief. “I ever tell you you’re the most skeptical fur I’ve ever known? Sometimes I swear you can ruin a sunny day.”
Fred chuckled at the minor insult and replied, “See if I save your tail the next time you’re drowning.”
The pair carefully pulled the Wolfwings out of the barn, and George checked over everything. The fabric covering the bamboo frame was perfectly tight all around. He checked the leather straps beneath and made sure they were tight and secure. Everything checked out. It was ready to test! Going back into the barn, he came back holding a length of heavy rope and tied it securely to the bar he’d be holding during a real flight.
“I think we’re ready, Fred,” he said confidently. “Shall we give this a go?”
“What do I need to do?” Fred asked, impressed at the size of this contraption. It moved as though it wanted to fly on its own in the lightest breeze.
“Just hold this rope while I strap myself in. When I’m ready, I’ll hold the hand bar and run into the wind.” George explained this as he handed the coil of rope to the Puma and started to snug the leather harness firmly around his chest. “You’ll need to run with me, and if I get off the ground, simply fly me like a kite. When I’m sure everything is working correctly, I’ll yell and you pull me in. Easy.”
It did sound easy. Fred replied, “OK. Let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll take off.”
George checked the straps one last time, grabbed the Wolfwings by the hand bar, and turned so he was facing the meadow, heading into the wind.
“Ready?” he asked.
Fred played out a length of rope and said, “Ready!”
George started running with Fred easily keeping up a short distance away. The rope was loose, and George was laughing, “This is great! It doesn’t feel heavy at all, it’s—” Suddenly he was off the ground, his legs still running but not making any contact.
Fred looked forward as he ran when he felt the rope tighten in his hands. He turned to look at his friend, and the Wolf was no longer beside him. Following the length of rope, he saw George ten feet above the ground, gliding easily almost overhead.
“Well I’ll be!” Fred yelled up to the flying Wolf. “It works!”
George, laughing loudly, asked, “You expected anything different? This is great! Let out a little more line. Let’s see if it goes higher.”
Fred let out the remaining length of rope and, just like a kite, George sailed farther from Fred, losing a little altitude but still sailing gracefully a few feet above the ground. Fred was amazed. It looked so easy. The rope tugged hard in the breeze, and Fred thought that was to be expected. The Wolfwings were huge and had to be to carry the weight of a fully grown Wolf. “That’s all there is George!” Fred yelled to his friend. “How you doing up there?”
“Great! This is really great!” the Wolf yelled back. He looked at the bamboo frame and the cloth overhead. Not a creak from the wood or a ripple from the fabric. It was solid as a rock. He was actually flying! He was only a few feet off the ground, but he was flying!
George felt the breeze pick up a little, and he lifted higher off the ground. He was a Wolf kite! He laughed happily. As he gained altitude, the breeze stiffened, and he heard Fred call out from below. “George, this is getting hard to hold. You have to come down.”
George watched the ground fall away beneath him and got a little nervous. “OK, this works perfectly. It’s what I wanted to know. Pull me in!”
Fred pulled for all he was worth, and the Wolfwings, responding like a kite, pulled back. Fred was dragged across the ground for a distance and, not wanting to lose his friend, sunk his claws into the rope. He held the rope tightly until he looked and saw he was off the ground too! Yelping, he let go of the rope and dropped to the ground before he got so high he couldn’t do so safely.
“Fred, whatja do that for? I can’t get back!” George called out, panic tingeing his voice.
“Steer it back!” Fred yelled to the retreating, and rapidly ascending, Wolf.
“I can’t! I don’t know how!” the Wolf yelled, barely able to hear his friend at this altitude. He gripped the handle of the Wolfwings tightly as the ground fell farther and farther from him.
He was sailing far over the trees and had an excellent view of the valley and the river. Panic was slowly replaced by awe as he watched the landscape flow serenely below him. “I suppose I’ll drop when the wind stops,” he said to himself as he made a beeline down the valley.
Fred was terrified. He saw his friend disappear as a small dot in the sky, then he lost sight of him altogether in the trees. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew he had to do something! He sprinted back to the tavern, hoping a specific fur would be there.
Fred burst through the front door of the tavern, gasping heavily. He looked around frantically at the furs having an afternoon meal, looking for someone. He spotted her and said a silent prayer of thanks then ran to her table.
“Deena. Help! I need your help. Please!”
Deena—most furs would call her a Gryphon—looked startled. She was a beautiful melding of Lion and Eagle but she considered herself simply a Lion with wings. Her body was that of a sleek Lioness and the only evidence she was a hybrid at all was her wings.
“She’s a Hy, right Daddy? Just like us?” Larna asked sleepily. “That’s short for hybrid. We have some in school. They’re cool. They look like one kind of fur but they’re not. Not really.”
Fred smiled and answered, “Yes, Deena is a Hy, just like you three.”
Veera smiled, then yawned showing her needle like teeth and rasp of a tongue. “I like being a Hy. I look like mommy but I have your claws and teeth.” She thought about that for a second and said sleepily, as though making a great discovery, “Half of mommy and half of daddy. Half and half!”
Fred smiled at his precocious daughter. So much like her mother. He answered, “Yes. Half and half.” Then he asked, “Now, shall we get back to the story?”
All three nodded, their eyelids drooping heavily.
Deena turned her large golden eyes on Fred. She blinked a few times without saying anything, taking everything in. She scented his fear and concern. She heard his rapid heartbeat and panting. She spoke slowly as she said, “Sit, Fred. Explain what’s wrong.” Her voice was powerful and deep, and Fred knew she expected no argument no matter what the situation.
Fred sat at the other side of the table as Deena continued her interrupted meal. “It’s George. He’s lost. In the sky.”
Deena choked on a mouthful of food and nailed Fred with an unblinking stare. “George? The Wolf?”
“Yes, you know George. He invents things.”
Deena rumbled a chuckle. “Well, he tries to, anyway. Not a bad inventor for a Wolf, actually,” she said absently. She looked at Fred and asked, “What do you mean he’s lost in the sky?”
“He invented a pair of wings. They actually work! We were testing them, and he got away. He just flew up and out of sight. I’m afraid he’ll kill himself.”
Deena took another bite or her meal, seeming quite calm about the whole situation. She finally said, “So tell him to fly back.”
“Deena, I can’t!” Fred said desperately, “I don’t think he knows how to steer them!”
A loud Lionish laugh rang through the tavern as Deena slowly got up from the table and padded sinuously to the door. “You owe me a meal, Puma,” she said over her shoulder. “This I have to see for myself!”
Outside, Deena crouched, her back legs coiling powerfully beneath her. She sprung from the ground and snapped her wings out. They beat the air powerfully several times as she gained altitude. Circling back over the tavern, she called out to Fred, “Which direction did he go?”
Fred pointed towards the river downstream, and laughing loudly again, Deena flew in that direction, gaining more altitude. She had been flying quickly in the direction Fred had indicated for some time, and she was beginning to suspect Fred had gotten the direction wrong. Her excellent vision hadn’t spotted anything so far. Just as she was about to circle back and check in the opposite direction, she looked up, and there, far in the distance and extremely high, was a Wolf. Deena laughed loudly and pumped her wings powerfully, gaining altitude and speed, closing the distance quickly. She said to herself, “This is going to be fun!”
George was getting concerned. The landscape below him was dropping farther and farther away. The river now looked like a small ribbon, and he could see every bend. The trees were impossible to see individually. The horizon looked very hazy, and he realized he was seeing the ocean and was headed right for it. Soon he’d be over water. That bothered him more than anything else. He was a really poor swimmer.
George almost yelped as a deep voice out of nowhere asked, “What are you doing up here, Wolf?”
George was terrified to move. Looking around, not seeing anything, he called out, “Hello?”
Deena chuckled and dropped alongside George, slightly ahead of him. “Hello George.” She said conversationally, “What are you doing up here?”
George was relieved at seeing Deena and having someone to talk to. He was terrified about flying over the ocean and now felt better because he knew, if anyone could, Deena would be able to help.
“Thank goodness it’s you, Deena!” George said with true relief in his voice. Deena chuckled at the tone. “I invented these Wolfwings and, well, they worked better than I ever imagined they would.”
Deena smiled at George, her own wings pumping infrequently in order to glide alongside the Wolf. “I think you better head back to the tavern, George,” she said enjoying the Wolf’s predicament. “You have poor Fred near scared to death. Not to mention a crowd of furs scanning the skies for you. I saw them come out of the tavern as I was leaving.” She thought about it for a minute and added, “I suspect when you go back you’ll have quite the crowd gathered. Everyone will want to see the Skydancing Wolf.”
“Skydancing?” George asked, forgetting his fear. He had never heard the term before.
“Ahhh yes, you wouldn’t know.” Deena explained. “Skydancers. Those of us with wings. We dance the currents of air. Furs like you, we call Groundlings. You never know the beauty and serenity of the sky.” She looked at George and grinned. “As far as I know, George, you are the first Groundling Skydancer.”
Deena was enjoying this. George was a good fur. He was willing to help anyone at any time. Even though he was a Wolf, Deena liked him, and she didn’t say that about many Groundlings, especially Wolves. However, like any Cat, she also liked to play, sometimes to the great discomfort of her chosen toy. She was quiet for a few moments then said, very casually, “Well George, you take care. See you back at the tavern.”
George panicked, and Deena scented it on the air. She chuckled softly. “Oh, wait George. Since you’re so new up here, you probably don’t know the way back. Just follow me.”
George swallowed hard and said, “Deena, please. I need your help. I don’t know how to fly. I can’t steer these Wolfwings.”
Deena took pity on George. He sounded so scared, and he was a good fur. “OK, George. I’m sorry. I can help. Just stay steady and let me look at your invention. I’m going to circle you, so don’t panic if I get out of sight. I’ll be nearby.”
She heard George reply, sounding very, very relieved. “Thank you, Deena. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.”
Deena had glided over the wolf, and her deep voice carried easily to him as she laughed and answered, “Just don’t tell another Skydancer I helped fledge a Wolf, and we’ll be even.”
Looking at George’s invention from all angles, she was impressed at the design. It was stable and caught the slightest breeze. He hung securely at the balance point, and any movement in any direction would cause the wings to respond. She was amazed he hadn’t panicked and plunged to the ground.
Moving back to a position where George could see her, she started her explanation. “OK George, I’m going to teach you to fly.” She smiled as he thanked her, and she said, “Typically we do this on the ground, but we have no choice at this point. You are my first fledgling, and I want to be proud of you. Don’t do anything until I tell you, and you do it exactly as I say, understand?” As though to make her point, she smiled at him showing her enormous teeth and flexed her paws exposing her claws. “Exactly as I say.”
“Don’t worry. You have my complete attention, Deena,” George replied.
Deena roared her laughter. “I like you, George, I really do. You have brass. OK, here’s what you do. First we need to lose some altitude. We get much higher and we’re going to get into strong currents that will tear this thing apart.” She watched as concern flashed across George’s face, but he nodded in acknowledgement.
“Very, very slowly, a whisker width at a time, I want you to pull yourself forward. This will put a little more weight on the front of your wings and cause you to head towards the ground.” She saw him nod again and continued. “George, it’s important you do this very slowly. If you move too quickly, your nose will dive, and it’s extremely possible your Wolfwings will snap in half.”
George swallowed hard and nodded again.
“OK, slowly! Pull yourself forward.”
Deena watched George as he very slowly pulled his suspended body forward, and the wings responded with the nose of the craft inching ever so slightly down. George started heading towards the ground, and the Gryphon flew with him.
“Very good, George!” she said. George thought he detected pride in her voice. “Now let’s try banking. With exactly the same care, I want you to pivot your body to the left. It’s like leaning left. It’ll put more weight on that wing, making it dip towards the ground, and your Wolfwings will head in that direction. When you’ve gone far enough, straighten out and you’ll fly level again. Understand?”
“I think so. Makes sense, actually,” George replied. Deena thought he was less scared now than he had been earlier and was actually beginning to enjoy himself. Maybe he had the makings of a true Skydancer after all.
“OK, George. Slowly, very slowly, lean left,” Deena instructed.
George moved carefully and felt the wings respond. He tilted, and after an instant of panic, when he felt like he was dropping, the wings grabbed air and turned. The ground pivoted below him as he made his maneuver. When he was following the river in the opposite direction he had been heading, he straightened and leveled out.
“Deena, this is wonderful!” George shouted to her. “Is this what you feel when you fly? It’s so beautiful!”
The Gryphon smiled. “Yes, George, it’s what all Skydancers feel. You’re a true Skydancer now.” She added, “We’ll have to figure out what your other name is later.”
“My other name?” George asked confused.
“All Skydancers have two names, George—their given name, like Deena or George, and then their earned name.” Deena explained this as they made their way upriver. “All Skydancers know me as Deena Cloudskimmer. I love flying through the clouds. They’re so refreshingly cool on hot days. Other Skydancers noticed my love of clouds and gave me that name. It’s my earned name. You’ll eventually earn one too.”
As they made their way back towards the tavern, Deena had George practice banking, climbing and dropping altitude. The Wolf wasn’t as graceful as a natural Skydancer, but Deena saw him gain confidence, becoming more graceful and comfortable. She was rather proud of her student.
“Deena, is that the tavern up ahead?” George called out.
“Sharp eyes there, Wolf. Yep, that’s it.” She laughed loudly. The tavern was a distance away yet, but there was a huge crowd gathered, and as they came into view, a dozen other Skydancers launched themselves skyward.
Deena saw them approaching and said to George. “There are other dancers coming, George. Show them what you have learned!”
George banked to the right, taking the Wolfwings over the tavern. He was ecstatic with his new ability and howled his joy to the wind. He saw Genna bouncing up and down excitedly in the crowd below, and he waved frantically to her as he had promised. He then banked to the left and climbed, gaining altitude on the steady breeze. He made a few more passes over the tavern to the cheers of the furs below. George was delighted. At every pass, he waved at Genna and howled his delight to her, and she waved back excitedly.
The other Skydancers simply followed George in formation. Deena filled in the position to his right, and the others took positions to his left and right. They followed every move George made. To the furs on the ground below, it was a beautiful aerial ballet. As the sun started to set, the winds died down, and the Skydancers broke up heading back towards the tavern.
Deena stayed with George and said, “You have made me very proud, George. The Skydancers were impressed. They would never have joined in your dance otherwise. Now we have to go and greet them.” She smiled at George as the light of the day waned and asked, “Do you know how to land?”
“Actually no, Deena,” George admitted. “Never thought that far ahead.”
Deena laughed loudly. “OK, George. That’s a lesson for another day. We don’t want to end this triumphant maiden flight with broken bones, so we’re going to do a water landing.”
George swallowed uneasily. “Water landing?” he asked uncertainly.
“Yes. It’s really easy, George. Just fly parallel to the shore, slowly head towards the ground, except do it over the water and close to the shore. Eventually you’ll slide into the water, and you can swim to shore.” She added for emphasis, “Trying this over land might head you into a tree or over rocks and it’ll be far more painful. This will have to do until we can teach you how to land safely.”
George nodded and swallowed hard again. He banked and moved as close to the shoreline as he could. Furs lined the bank cheering loudly as George glided in, skimmed the river’s surface and then splashed into the river, coming to a complete stop.
The bamboo of the frame floated on the river’s surface as George hung beneath it, underwater, holding his breath and unsuccessfully trying to untie his bindings.
Suddenly a blur was next to him, and George watched as wickedly sharp claws slashed the bindings away. George felt himself being carried up. He broke the surface of the river, gasping for air, and heard the crowd cheering wildly. George was pulled out of the river by numerous hands as Fred, releasing him to the other furs trying to help, glared and said, “You ever try anything that stupid again, Wolf, and I swear I’ll let you drown!” He then smiled, hugely relieved that his best friend was back safe and sound.
George sat on the ground, coughing and trying to catch his breath when Genna rushed up saying, “George are you alright?! I was so scared for you! You are so brave! And you waved at me like you said you would! Thank you so much!” She then took Georges head in her hand and kissed him hard.
Once again the crowd broke into cheers. When Genna finally broke the kiss she hugged George tightly. Looking over her back, George saw his friend grinning knowingly. He gave George a conspiratorial wink.
Lissa came up behind Fred with a towel and started drying his fur, rubbing vigorously. “Don’t want the best friend of a hero catching cold,” she explained. Fred laughed and leaned into the rubbing, enjoying it thoroughly. Feeling him lean into her, Lissa warned, “Don’t get any ideas there, Cat. Your back is the only part of you that gets rubbed.”
Patting the rabbit’s long foot at his side, Fred replied, “Trust me, lovely Rabbit, I’m quite sure you could do far more damage than your beautiful exterior leads one to believe possible. I’ll ask for no rubbing, ever, anywhere, unless I’m quite sure you’re willing to provide it.” Fred heard throaty laughter from behind him and felt the rubbing subtly change into a more sensual massage.
When everyone had settled down, Deena came up to George, flanked by the other Skydancers. She roared to get the attention of the crowd, and when everyone was quiet, she spoke loudly enough for all to hear.
“George Wolf. Come forward.” She said this with authority. There were whispers among the crowd. Furs tried to figure out if George was in trouble in some way.
When George stood before her, she stated, “George Wolf. On this day you have earned the name George Skydancer as has been agreed to by all Skydancers who have witnessed your flight.” The assembled Skydancers, Gryphons, Eagles, Hawks, and even a rare Pegasus nodded their agreement. Deena continued, “On this day also it is agreed by the assembled Skydancers you have earned your second name. From this day forward you will be known by all Skydancers as Skydancer George Loudhowl!”
The furs around them cheered as all Skydancers bowed their heads in acknowledgement that another had been added to their ranks. Genna hugged George happily. “That’s so wonderful, George! You’re a Skydancer! I’m so proud of you!” She kissed him again, and George hugged her and kissed back happily.
Lissa came up beside Fred and put her arm around his waist, saying, “That’s my little sister. Always showing more emotion than is good for her.”
“And you never express any emotion?” Fred asked, smiling as he looked at the beautiful fur beside him.
Lissa grinned back evilly at the Puma and said, “Not anywhere that can be heard.”
Larna and Shalla had already fallen asleep. Veera was determined to stay awake until the end of the story and said, “And the next year you and mommy, Uncle George and Aunt Genna were mated and we all live happily every after!”
Fred smiled at his daughter and, kissing her softly on the forehead, said, “Yes, dear one. We all live happily ever after. Now, close your eyes and go to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Veera yawned hugely and said, “Night, Daddy,” and was instantly asleep.
Fred padded softly downstairs. “Sorry folks. The little femmes wanted a bedtime story so I had to tell them one.” George and Genna were snuggled closely on one couch, and Lissa patted a place next to her on the other, inviting her mate over. Fred sat next to her and snuggled into the comfortable and familiar fur. “I’ll also have you know that we now have to talk about kissy stuff.”
Lissa laughed a musical laugh, knowing exactly where that had come from, but George asked, “Kissy stuff?”
Fred grinned. “It’s what adults talk about, doncha know.” He explained, “Veera apparently saw Lissa and I kissing in the kitchen one day, and we stopped when she walked in. So when they’re alone, adults talk about kissy stuff.”
They all laughed at the lovely innocence. Genna looked at George and said, “Isn’t that so cute? We need to work on having a few kits of our own. What do you say we get home and talk about kissy stuff?”
George kissed his mate then rose from the couch. He grinned over at his friends and said, “Looks like I’m being dragged home to be naughty.” He then grinned at his mate and added, “I think I’m up for it!”
“George Wolf!” Genna exclaimed, the inside of her long white ears turning crimson with embarrassment.
“Well?” George asked. “Isn’t that what you meant?”
Genna grinned evilly at her sister still snuggling her mate on the couch. “Wolves! They can be so crude sometimes!”
Lissa looked back at her sister and winked. “And you would have us believe you would want him otherwise?”
Genna chuckled and said, “I never said that!” Looking over at her mate, she said in an exasperated tone, “Let’s go home, Wolf. You have to make up for embarrassing me so badly in front of our hosts.”
George laughed and said to Fred, “If you hear me calling for help, you’ll come running, won’t you?”
Fred shook his head. “Nope. You’re all on your own there. I only save Wolves from drowning.”
George was laughing as he and his mate left and closed the door behind them.
Fred snuggled closer to his mate and asked, “Anything kissy you want to discuss?”
“Nothing with open windows and neighbors within hearing distance.” Lissa got off the couch and closed the windows and returned, grinning wickedly, to snuggle suggestively against her mate.