STAR MAN’S SAGA

 by Ralph F. Couey

 

 Chapter 9

Even in the mountains, the long winters finally end.  The snows had reluctantly retreated, leaving isolated patches of white on shaded hillsides and valleys, stubbornly resisting the warmth of the approaching spring.  The tribe had begun to awaken from its winter slumbers.  The new coal seam was being mined steadily and each day carts of the black ore streamed back to the Stronghold to be placed in the storage buildings.  It was still too early to plant, but among the numerous small mountain meadows, members of the Eyrie were already turning soil, preparing the fields for sowing.  Within the Clan Circles, repairs to homes and other buildings were underway, patching the inevitable damage inflicted by the harsh winter.  Healers had gone out among the clans and were examining carefully every man, woman, and child, carefully taking stock of the health of the tribe.  Hunters were scouting the hills, counting the populations of those animals whose meat would help sustain them.  That information would go back to the Master of the Hunters, who then would make careful decisions on the size of harvest they could take without depleting the herds. 

The tribe was, in a sense, coming back to life and one could sense the cheer as people left their homes and the memory of those long, winter nights behind, sharing with each other while reveling in the season's warmth.

In the Star House, everyone was busy.  Maps were consulted, and journeys were planned.  Some Star Men would return to cities already known and continue to search the ruins.  Others would be sent into unexplored areas, searching for new cities. 

Fors was deep into planning his own journey.  He spent hours perusing the maps the Eyrie possessed, planning and estimating the trail to the northwest.  His first stop would have to be the new nation arising along the banks of the as-yet unnamed river where the clans of the Plainsmen and the Southerners were living.  The trip would have to be planned with them as well, although Fors knew that time was against them.  It would be necessary to begin those deliberations as soon as possible.  Nira was restless, seemingly aware that a journey lay ahead of them both.  The great cat spent a lot of time roaming the surrounding area, hunting and sharpening his sinews and senses.

Despite the long days they were both putting in, Fors and Wenna nevertheless made time for each other, an effort especially important given the long absence facing the two.  For the first time, the Star Man found himself feeling reluctant about taking the trails once again.  He knew that Wenna was feeling distressed as well but knowing the deep sense of duty in her husband, she had not discussed it much.  Her concerns were rather manifested in the touch of her hands, embraces that lasted ever longer, and the long looks she gave Fors when she thought he wasn’t looking.  And the occasional sadness in her eyes. 

Kreston was working very hard on his training, readying himself for the Great Council Fire that was fast approaching.  He spent hours at the forge, crafting his sword and knife, shaped and balanced for his hand alone.  He had made several bows, each one an improvement on the last.  He excelled at arrows, Stephen’s artisan skills now a part of his son.  Straight, balanced, trimmed, they flew straight and far.  Quickly he had mastered the art of stamping the imprint of the star on the shaft without breaking or bending the wood.  Whoever found one of those arrows would know without a doubt that it came from the bow of a Star Man.  One evening at dusk, Fors found the youngster at the east promontory, looking to the horizon.  Already, Kreston’s sphere of vision was expanding beyond the limits of the Stronghold.  Torin was keeping his own council on the decisions, but Fors knew he had been watching the youngster from time to time.  Fors, despite their ties, could not help but be impressed.  The youngster was the best kind of student, eager to learn and ready to admit that he didn’t know it all.

It was a rare free afternoon and Fors and Kreston were spending the time running the steep hills around the Stronghold.  Fors had taught him the easy, mile-eating jog that enabled Star Men to cover vast amounts of territory without exhausting themselves.  At first, the youngster had struggled mightily.  But over time, his wind improved, and he learned the secrets known to every long-distance runner about how to manage his body's resources.  Fors, on the other hand, was dealing with pain in his joints, pain that made itself felt every time his feet hit a rock wrong.  Wenna had devised a wrap that went around his knees, making them more stable.  Still, the older man managed to keep ahead of the youngster, although it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so.  Nira, of course, bounded effortlessly from rock to rock, easily keeping pace.

They were resting, having completed a long run up Wizard Mountain, so named because of the long, thin clouds that continually collected around its peak, resembling a long, grey beard.  Fors was taking advantage of the break to point out edible plants and herbs that dotted the landscape.  It took a while for Kreston to regain his breath, for which Fors was secretly grateful.  Just below the summit, they sat on a pair of rocks.  From where they were, almost the whole of the stronghold was visible.  For a few minutes they watched as the people went about their numerous tasks.  Kreston remarked, “It almost looks like an ant hill after it has been stirred up.” 

Fors chuckled, “A very apt observation.  The busiest creatures on this planet are ants and the people of the Eyrie.”

Kreston looked at him for a moment. “Star Man…forgive me but I am unsure as to the proper way to address you.”

Fors smiled.  “Call me Fors, if it is comfortable for you.”

The boy nodded.  “Fors…were you ever presented with a situation for which you felt you were not equal to the task?”

Fors leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees.  “It happens much more often than you might think.  On my first journey out of the mountains, I was assailed by a wild boar.  I was holding my own until the heel of my boot was caught in a loose board.  At that moment, the boar used his tusk to rip my leg open.”  He pointed to the still-visible scar.  “I managed to kill the boar with my sword, but there I was, far from home, no help in sight, with a very serious, perhaps life-threatening injury.  The pain was terrible, but I managed to boil water, prepare the dressing, and wrap the wound.  At almost every moment in that ordeal, I had doubts that I could survive.  I only knew what I could do, and I focused on that.”  He gestured at his legs.  “And as you see, I can still walk.  I could have limped back to the Eyrie, but I was in no mood for surrender.”

Kreston nodded slowly.  “You were held captive by the Beast Things for a time.  How did you survive that experience?”

Fors lowered his head.  Those memories always came back to him, usually visiting in the dark of night.  “I discovered that sometimes life is reduced to the desire and determination to survive to the next minute.  And the next, and so on.  I learned to not think too far ahead in those situations, but to deal with the experience one moment at a time.”  He pointed to several other scars on his legs and arms.  “That experience will always be with me, either in my mind or on my body.”

Kreston reached out and gently touched Fors.  “Your scars tell your story.”

Fors looked up and smiled.  “Yes, they do.  You will likely wear such stories yourself.”

“How did you come to choose Lura?”

“In the tradition of the Star House, it is the cat that chooses the man, not the other way around.  It is an honor because they possess instincts beyond understanding, and they see in us things that we often don’t know exist.  A bond, a trust is born, one that sustains both of you in the lowlands.  We saved each other’s lives more times than could be counted. I am not my cat’s master, rather we are partners. And friends.”

They both heard a shout, and turning, the saw a runner approaching.  The message was that Fors had to return to the Eyrie immediately.  Together, the three headed back to the Stronghold. 

Upon arriving, Fors dispatched Kreston to their home, telling him to await his return.  Still slightly winded, he entered the Star House.  Seeing Torin, he inquired of the summons.  Soundlessly, the Star Captain gestured towards the table.  Fors turned to behold a tall, dark-skinned man whose face was instantly recognized, despite the tinges of gray in his tightly-curled hair. 

"Arskane!"  Fors exclaimed delightedly.  The black man arose from his seat and the two embraced, laughing together. 

"Brother, I detect the breath of fatigue.  Surely, the years have not slowed you down."

Fors grinned, "I will not admit to the passage of time, but I am of the opinion that these mountains are getting steeper and taller with each passing year!"

The two embraced briefly, laughing. 

"What brings you into the mountains?"

"I am here at the request of Stahlon, the High Chief of the Plainsmen.  A journey to the far northwest awaits and he is anxious to begin.  But, he won't allow anyone to take a step out of his camp without you."

Fors nodded.  "I am anxious as well.  I am completing my planning here and I should be ready to travel in a week."

Arskane leaned towards Fors.  "Have you received approval from your wife?"

Fors shook his head.  "Who told you?"

Arskane winked.  "No one.  You have the look of a married man."

Fors raised an eyebrow.  "And what look is that?"

Arskane put his hand on the Star Man's shoulder.  "Contentment, my brother."

Fors grinned again.  "And tell me, my brother, are you..."content" as well?"

"As content as a man can be with six children."  He turned serious.  "The Gods have smiled upon me with generosity."

Fors smiled.  "Good news indeed."  He stood up.  "Let me show you my home...and my family."

As they were about to leave, Torin gestured minutely and Fors stepped closer.  "While you're with him, find out how he got here."  Fors looked up, confused.  "He just walked into the Main Circle.  He got all the way up here without being seen by any of the Sentries or Defender Patrols."

"Arskane is a man of intelligence and wile.  His trail skills are without peer."

"And if he has found a weakness in the Stronghold's perimeter, we need to know what that is."  Torin's face was serious.  Fors nodded and left the Star House.

The two old friends walked across the Main Circle and started down the Main Path, talking animatedly. On their walk down, Arskane drew the odd looks of many of Fors' people, almost none of whom had ever before seen a dark-skinned man. Arskane was full of news of his family, as well as ideas for their journey.  Fors, for his part, spoke of the events leading up to his marriage.  At one point, the big southerner put his long arm around Fors' shoulders.  "I cannot tell you how happy I am for you.  When a man discovers love, it changes him for the better.  For you, I can see that you are no longer the lonely man I once knew."

A few minutes later, they arrived at the hospital.   It was a pleasant day and the door was standing open.  The two entered, taking a moment for their eyes to adjust from the bright spring sunshine outside.  One of the Healer Novices looked up and smiled.  "Welcome, Fors!  Wenna is treating a miner, but I will tell her you are here."  With a curious glance at Fors' companion, she hurried down the hallway.  A few minutes later, Wenna appeared, gently escorting a young man covered in coal dust with his arm in a sling.  They stopped, Wenna obviously giving the man instructions for his recovery.  He spoke his thanks and left.  Wenna, seeing Fors, smiled brightly and came nearer. 

"Husband, I am happy to see you!"

Fors, resisting the urge to kiss her, smiled broadly as well.  "And I you, my wife."  Turning to his companion, he said, "This is Arskane, my brother."

Arskane bowed deeply and said solemnly, "It is an honor, My Lady."

Wenna reached out and took both the big man's hands.  "The honor is mine, Arskane.  Fors has told me of the many times you saved his life.  Were it not for you, I would never have rediscovered the joy I now feel."

"Perhaps your husband has not told you, but he has kept me from death at least as many times."

Wenna smiled, "No he has not, but that is of no surprise."  She favored Fors with her smile.  "I have come to know my husband as a man of great nobility."

Fors could feel his face blushing.  Smiling at his discomfiture, Wenna asked, "Arskane, will you do us the honor of breaking bread with us this night?"

Arskane replied gravely, "I do not wish to intrude.  I know the hour is already late."

Wenna smiled gently.  "You are the brother of my husband.  Our home is also yours."

Arskane returned her gentle smile.  "Then, I accept."

*****

Hours later, Arskane pushed his chair back, sighing contentedly.  "A feast, My Lady, fit for Kings and Chieftains."

Wenna chuckled as she and Fors cleared the table.  "Your flattery is skillful -- and most welcome."  Walking behind Arskane, she paused and leaned over.  "And as I have told you repeatedly, my name is Wenna."

Arskane grinned.  "Thank you...Wenna."

Kreston had been mostly silent during the meal, regarding their visitor with a sense of awe, made deeper as he listened to the two men as they recalled their adventures.  For the boy, it was his first exposure to the world outside the Eyrie and he found it almost overwhelming.  Arskane had tried to gently engage Kreston in conversation, but the youngster remained mostly in awed silence.  But he did ask one question.

“Uncle, how did you meet?”

Arskane turned serious.  “I was exploring one of the dead cities, the furthest my people had ever ventured from our homeland.  I was largely ignorant of the hidden threats in this land, and I fell prey to one of the Beast Thing’s cruel traps.  I fell through a mat of grass into a deep pit and was impaled on spikes at the end of my fall.  There I would have died were it not for this remarkable man,” he gestured at Fors.  “Wary of strangers any explorer must be, but Fors went beyond his fears.  Brother, perhaps you should continue the narrative from here.”

Fors nodded.  “I had been following Arskane’s movements for several days, even coming across the remains of a fight with the Beast Things.  When I came upon the pit and looked within, I saw him lying there and decided, stranger or not, that no one deserved to die in such a place.  Using my rope and the horse I had captured, I lifted him off of the spikes and out of the pit.  I took him to my camp and treated his wound.  He was fevered and delirious for a few days, but Arskane is strong and he eventually recovered.  We learned each other’s languages and have been partners in exploration and brothers in heart ever since.”

Arskane unfastened his tunic and pointed to a still-ugly scar below his shoulder.  “I look at this every day and remember the lesson Fors taught me about trust and faith.”

After cleaning up the remains of the dinner, they moved to the living room by the fireplace and continued to talk.  Wenna and Kreston, begging fatigue, bade the two men good night.

They sat in silence for a time.  The door was open, allowing the gentle evening breeze to drift in.  Outside, crickets began their song, the sound adding a sense of peace to the moment.  At that moment, Nira padded in, having been gone most of the day.  He purred his welcome at Fors, then favored Arskane with a lick of his rough tongue.  Arskane smiled and briefly scratched behind the cat's ears.

After a few moments Arskane broke the silence. "Brother, you have been blessed by this family."

Fors nodded.  "I always thought I would do best on my own, but these past few months have shown that over the years of my life, I have only been half a man.  We delude ourselves about how independent and strong we are, how we can function and survive needing very little.  Then one day, we meet someone and discover just how lonely we were.  For those many years, I existed apart from everyone.  Now, I cannot conceive of ever again being on my own." 

Arskane smiled.  “My wife explained it this way:  The heart knows what the heart wants and knows how to make its wishes known.”  He sighed reflectively.  “I love being an explorer. Always have.  But I love more being a husband and a father.  In our journeys, we saw the remains of memorials to people long forgotten.  I have come to understand that the best and most telling memorial to our lives are the children and grandchildren we leave behind.  We shape them into the people they must be and through them our spirits will always live.”

There was a short pause, then Arskane continued.  "I think I caused your Star Captain some small consternation."

Fors cleared his throat.  "These many years, our defenses have kept us safe, and yet you came through them unseen.  Torin is concerned that the path you took could also be a route of invasion for the Beast Things."

"My friend, your tribe's isolation has created a false sense of invulnerability.  It is something that happens when defenses are untested.  Tomorrow, we should tour your perimeter with fresh eyes."

The next morning, Fors and Arskane, along with Darvid, the Master of Defenders and Sentries, and Torin, retraced the Southerner's trek up the mountain.  As they climbed, Arskane pointed out with accuracy the position of the sentries, based on trail signs like worn rocks, stunted vegetation, and places where the terrain dictated obvious points of observation.  As mid-day approached, Arskane showed how the smoke from cooking fires revealed other sentry locations, as well as the obvious trails used by the patrols.   He demonstrated how he could make his way for long distances, using terrain and vegetation for cover, and how he was able to disguise the way he had come.  It was late afternoon when the party, dusty and tired from the climb, returned to the Eyrie.  The mountaineers wore glum looks, having been showed vulnerabilities of which they had not been aware. 

They convened in the Star House for the evening meal.  Arskane held everyone's attention as he presented his recommendations for strengthening the tribe's defenses.  Darvid was especially enthusiastic about the idea of testing the Stronghold's defenses on a regular basis.  The four then went to Jarl's home to brief the Eyrie leader on what they had discovered.  Jarl took it all in and after some contemplation, noted, "It is plain that complacency has afflicted us all, especially me.  We are fortunate that this was discovered by a friend."

He thanked Arskane with great dignity, then the four left the Guardian.  Darvid immediately called his commanders to a late meeting to begin immediately the task of correcting the deficiencies.  Fors and Arskane, after bidding Torin goodnight, returned to Fors' house. 

They spent the evening planning the upcoming trip, and the issues that awaited them with the tribes of the far northwest. 

“Fors, how will you approach them?”

Fors thought for a moment.  “Despite all the differences we see in each other, we are all bound by our humanity.  I remember some words I recovered from a book I once discovered in some ruins, spoken by one of the Old Ones.  He said, ‘Our most basic common line is that we all inhabit this planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.’  That wisdom has always guided me in my efforts to bring peace to conflict, by focusing on what we all hold in common instead of what drives us apart.  When you reduce all humanity to its essence, what is in the hearts of all is the desire to live today, and survive to bring the future to our children.  I’ve found that this … philosophy finds resonance in the hearts of all.”

Arskane nodded slowly.  “My brother, you possess such uncommon wisdom.  Humanity is fortunate that you live among all of us today.”

After several hours, Arskane leaned back in his chair.  "So, my brother, you will be ready to take the trail within a week?

Fors nodded.  "Yes.  The Great Council Fire is in three days.  It is the Night of Choosing for our tribe and I must be there."

Arskane thought for a moment.  "Then I will leave on the morrow and alert the others.  We should be able to depart the day after you arrive at the Plains camp.  The Plainsmen have contributed 10 horses, and my people will provide 6 carts to carry our supplies.  I think that should be suff--"

A knock at the door startled Arskane into silence.  Fors rose and opened the door, surprised to find Torin standing there.  He ushered the Star Captain inside and invited him to sit, which he did.  Wenna, hearing his arrival came into the room.

"Fors, Arskane, forgive me for intruding.  I know the hour is late, but I have been thinking about this journey and there is one element I feel we have overlooked."

Fors and Arskane glanced at each other.  The Southerner asked, "What element is that?"

"This will be the longest journey ever undertaken by the Star House, and I am concerned about the unknown dangers along this trail.  I am of the opinion that along with a Defender, perhaps a Healer should also accompany you."

Silence filled the room.  Fors stole a glance at his wife, whose face showed interest.  Suddenly, the truth behind the Star Captain's statement dawned upon him.  Turning to the Star Captain, he inquired, "Did you have someone particular in mind?"

Torin gazed back in mock gravity.  "I thought you might have a suggestion."

Fors turned to his wife.  "Wenna, do you know of a Healer sufficiently experienced and resourceful who is willing to undertake a journey of this measure?"

Wenna appeared to consider the question.  "Yes, I think I do."  She looked at Fors with mock reproval.  "And so do you."  She rose, placing her fingertips on the table's surface as if testing it.  "I was also thinking what a tremendous opportunity this would be for a Star Novice.  What better way to learn the trails than by taking them?"

Torin, resting his chin in his left hand, eyed Wenna carefully.  Turning to Fors, he said, "She is a wily one, to be sure."

Fors responded only by holding up his left hand, the still-shiny marriage ring catching the lamp light.  The Star Captain rose.  "Well, I will render my final decision after the Night of Choosing.  No sense rushing into it."  He moved towards the door, spoke his farewells, and left.  Fors, Arskane, and Wenna stood silently, looking at each other.

Then all three burst out in laughter.

 


 "Star Man's Saga"
Copyright ~ Ralph F. Couey and the Estate of Andre Norton 2017
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by – Ralph F. Couey

Revision: 2 ~ July, 2019

 Formatted by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ Nov. 2017 & Aug. 2019

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.