STAR MAN’S SAGA

--Ralph F. Couey

 star.mans.saga

 cover art by O. Polishchuk from 1992 Russian omnibus titled Daybreak 2250 A.D.

 

Chapter 4

 

Dawn found him up and around. He recovered some dried fruit from his storage cache, enjoying the sweet taste. He quickly dressed and left his house, Nira padding along in his wake. At the Puma trail head, he turned south on the Main Path. Feeling rested and pain-free, he walked freely. Most of the Eyrie still slept, although occasionally he could see a line of smoke from a cooking fire emerging from a chimney. The early morning light laid long shadows across his path. The air had a very slight chill to it, clear sign that the short mountain summer was waning. He passed the last of the Clan Circles and followed the path as it descended towards a complex of caves. Uncounted centuries ago, these caves had formed the pathway for what had been an underground river. Now, they housed the most valuable asset the Eyrie possessed.

 

The hydroponic gardens had been established when the Eyrie’s ancestors first came into the mountains. It was one of the few remaining technologies that had survived over the years. Fed by springs that were the vestiges of the ancient river, the gardens ensured a steady supply of produce and vegetables, even during the coldest winter. Over time, the tribe’s agronomists had been able to produce a wide range of edible plants. Even fruit trees, peaches, pears, and apples had been produced. The farm was located in the deepest, most defensible part of the Eyrie Stronghold, for obvious reasons. If anything happened to the cave farms, the Eyrie would starve.

 

As Fors approached the first of the caves, two Defenders appeared from behind some rocks. Recognizing Fors, they relaxed and nodded. Fors entered the cave and walked back several yards and encountered one of the Eyrie’s Agronomists. Looking up in surprise, she said, “A Star Man! To what do we owe the honor?”

 

Fors smiled. “I am Fors of the Puma Clan.”

 

She extended her hand. “I am Tamara of the Orion Clan.” They shook hands.

 

Fors said, “I realize that you are very busy, but it has been many years since I learned how these gardens work, and I would like to…re-learn.”

 

“Your timing is fortunate. As it happens, I have just been relieved off watch.” She led him deeper into the cave. “We have developed what we call a top-feed drip system. There is a two-inch layer of a clay-like material, called perlite. It serves as the growing media for the plants.” She pointed at the far end, where the long rack and table was raised slightly. “Nutrient is dripped in at one end and gravity-fed to a drain at the other end, which directs it back to the tank for recirculation. The power for the pumps is provided by direct feed from windmills on top of the caves. These caves are deep enough to maintain an even temperature, so there’s never a danger from frost or freeze, no matter how cold the winter.”

 

“What about light?”

 

Tamara smiled. “That is the ingenious part.” She pointed at some low towers near the cave entrance. Fors could see that several more of the towers were spaced evenly along the length of the cave. “Watch and learn.”

 

Looking back out of the cave, Fors could see the sun beginning to crest the mountain peaks to the east. Within a few moments, the sun’s rays flooded into the cave entrance. With blinding suddenness, the cave was filled with light. Blinking rapidly, Fors felt himself pulled to the side. He heard Tamara’s voice, somewhat embarrassed, say, “I am sorry, I should have seen where you were standing. Can you see?”

 

Fors’ vision cleared rapidly. Looking carefully, he saw the genius. On each tower was mounted a large reflective shield, highly polished. The sun’s rays were caught and reflected on to the mirror on the next tower. The system carried the light, mirror to mirror, all the way to the end of the cave, providing more than ample light for the plants.

 

Tamara continued, “We have to continually adjust the lead mirror in order to make sure that we get the full benefit of the light. But the location of the caves was fortuitous, because no matter what time of year, no matter what the sun’s angle is, we are able to stream light into the caves. Also, the mirrors transmit heat, which helps warm the caves. While the plants do moderately well in the cave’s natural temperature, the added warmth increases the plant’s yields.”

 

Fors walked close to the racks. “What about this clay material?”

 

Tamara nodded. “Just as we need oxygen to live, plants need nitrogen. The roots of many plants are able to form intimate relationships with a particular fungi living in the soil. These are a symbiosis – a partnership of benefit to both partners. The fungi are very efficient at absorbing nutrients, especially phosphate, from the soil. This is exchanged with the plant in return for plant sugars that are absorbed and used by the fungus. In addition, the roots of legume plants form an unusual and highly specialized symbiosis with other bacteria. This symbiosis enables the bacteria to take nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and convert it into nitrate and ammonia, which are absorbed and used by the plant. The plants are effectively able to make their own fertilizer as a result of this partnership. In return the bacteria are able to absorb and use sugars produced by the plant. The whole thing works like a big circle. All we have to do is make sure the water flows and the mirrors are properly aimed. The result is a bounty of food to feed our tribe.”

 

Fors marveled. It was a miraculous system complex, yet simple. He had never really sought knowledge on the cave farms, preferring to study the lessons of the open trail. But he could see now that wresting sustenance from this system was, in its own way, every bit of an adventure as exploring a ruined city. Tamara walked over to another set of racks where some small trees were growing. She briefly searched among the branches, then smiled and handed Fors a fresh peach. Fors hesitated, then took a bite. The fresh sweetness filled his mouth and his eyes went wide in surprise and pleasure. Tamara’s smile broadened. “I hope you are enjoying the peach.”

 

Fors nodded. “It’s perfect! Thank you!”

 

“We have worked very hard to improve each generation of plants, but there is still much that we do not know. I am aware of the protocols of the Star House, but we need books on plant genetics. Is there any way you could help us out?”

 

Fors took another bite and held up the peach. “So, this is a kind of bribe?”

 

Tamara smiled again. “We really need those books.”

 

Fors took another bite, then said, “I will speak with Torin. I am sure something can be worked out. Of course, you will have to train the Star Men so they will know what to look for.”

 

Tamara nodded. “It will be my pleasure to do so.” She extended her hand. “Thank you, Fors!”

 

He took the last bite out of the peach and handed her the core. “Your thanks are not required.” He pointed at the peach core. “It was a very effective bribe.”

 

Back in the Star House, Torin sighed and thought for a moment. “I think the best time to do this teaching will be when the last of the Star House returns from the trails. Varin of the Timber Wolf clan will return two weeks before the autumnal equinox, barring any problems.” He looked up, curious. “What moved you to visit the caves?”

 

Fors shrugged. “Curiosity. As a Star Man I know much more about the world outside the Eyrie than I do the inside. I thought it would be…useful knowledge.”

 

Torin eyed him expectantly. “And…?”

 

Fors sighed. “Jarl has instructed me to educate myself on the inner workings of the tribe. For what purpose I do not know.”

 

The room was silent. Torin gazed at the wall, his lips pursed and very deep in thought. After a time, he asked, “What else did Jarl share with you?

 

Fors retold the conversation with Jarl. As he spoke, the Star Captain continued to stare at the wall, nodding from time to time. Completing his recollection, Fors asked, “Has Jarl discussed any of this with you?”

 

Focus returned to Torin’s eyes and his gaze returned to Fors. “The Guardian and I had a long discussion in the days prior to your return. To me has he also given…instructions. I cannot share with you all he told me as he has taken me into his confidence.” Noting Fors’ look of frustration, he leaned forward and continued. “Fors, you will be called upon to make some momentous decisions in the months ahead, decisions that carry with them the future of the Eyrie. As daunting as this must sound to you, know that others have come to trust your wisdom and your courage. You must trust them as well.” He hesitated. “I can say no more of this…for now.”

 

• * * * * *

 

 

Several days later, Fors was busily engaged training novices in the art of sword fighting. The current collection of novices were typical, some gifted, some not, some eager, some stubborn. The training was hard work, but Fors was enjoying himself immensely all the same. The problem with school, he mused, was finding usefulness in the subjects taught. For these novices, their skill with a blade and bow would put meat on their fires and keep them alive in the inevitable combat awaiting them on the trails.

 

Critically, he observed two of the novices somewhat clumsily sparring with training swords, carrying the same heft as the real thing, but without the razor-sharp edges on the blade and tip. “Demas, you cannot thrust in that manner. If you fail to turn your shoulders, you open up your belly to a counter-thrust. Never give your enemy a wide target.” The youngster nodded and began to apply Fors’ instruction. They sparred for a few moments, then Fors leaped forward, catching Demas’ opponent by surprise. Grasping the boy’s shoulders, Fors easily spun him to the ground, the sword clattering to the ground beside him.

 

The boy looked up at the Star Man in shocked surprise and quick anger. With the novices attention riveted upon him, Fors delivered the lesson:

 

“Star Men almost always fight alone. Your enemies almost always do not. If you allow your attention to be buried by the fight, you will never see the killing thrust that enters your back.” He paused for effect. “Always know your surroundings.”

 

Looking carefully at their faces, he saw comprehension come to their eyes. Lesson embraced.

 

Fors glanced at the sun briefly and announced, “Please return to the Star House for your mapping class.”

 

He watched as the youngsters, obviously fatigued, filed out of the meadow. Fors stayed to ensure nothing had been left behind, then followed the students back to the Star House. The sun was just past its zenith but despite the clear sky, the day was noticeably cooler than when he had returned to the Eyrie. He loved the autumn season and his spirit was buoyed by what was certainly a harbinger of that time. As he walked, he remained deep in thought, planning his lesson for the next day. So preoccupied was he that he very nearly walked right past Wenna, who was waiting alongside the path.

 

Smiling, she remarked, “First you teach them to know their surroundings, then you almost walk right past me, so deep in thought. What if I had been a Beast Thing?”

 

Fors grinned, embarrassed, then reached out to give her a welcoming embrace, which she returned with warmth. “You are far lovelier than a Beast Thing.”

 

Her eyebrows raised, “I should hope so.” They walked silently for a time, then she asked, “Fors, can you come to my house for dinner this night?”

 

Fors looked at her somewhat surprised. “Is your son ready for this?”

 

“Funny you should ask. It was his idea. You were right in one sense. Kreston does have concern for his mother’s happiness.” She slowed and put a cautionary hand on his arm. “But know that you will be measured this night. Stephen remains a hero to him and no man, not even another Star Man will ever replace that.”

 

Once his duties had been discharged, Fors returned to his house and prepared himself. In all his years of diplomacy, he had often had to prepare himself for conferences and ceremonies where even a piece of clothing out of place could cause great offense. But as he dressed, he found himself affected by a strong sense of apprehension. He repeatedly counseled himself that Kreston was only a boy, not a tribal chief or warrior king. But even with that attempt at self-assurance, he found himself surprisingly nervous as he strode down the Main Path to the Hawk Clan circle. In no time at all, he found himself at the front door. Taking a deep breath, he knocked. After a moment, the door opened. Standing before Fors was a young man, perhaps 15 or so. His dark brown hair was close-cropped and topped a face that was square-shaped with a strong chin. He was the living reflection of his father, the same resolute set to the jaw, and eyes glowing with intelligence. He was thin, in the way of adolescents, but Fors could see that the boy’s shoulders were already beginning to broaden. Remembering Kreston’s status in this house, Fors stood straight, almost at attention. “Greetings to you and the members of this house. I have come in response to your gracious and generous invitation.”

 

The boy’s eyes widened ever so slightly, but he responded in a steady voice according to tradition. “Welcome. To you we extend the warmth of the hearth and the bounty of our table. Enter in peace.”

 

Fors nodded in response. Once the door was closed, Fors was engulfed with the aromas of good food. Putting that distraction firmly aside, he extended his hand to Kreston, who extended his in turn, after only a small hesitation. Rather than a regular handshake, Fors gripped the young boy with the warrior’s clasp, gripping his forearm just below the elbow. That took him by surprise, Fors noted, but he returned the gesture with just a hint of a pleased smile.

 

Careful to keep even a hint of condescension from his tone, Fors said, “I am honored to meet the man of this house.”

 

This time, a genuine smile. “The honor is mine, Star Man.”

 

Quick, familiar steps, then a woman’s voice: “All right, you two; enough ceremony. This is not the Star House.”

 

Fors smiled, “Good evening! It is good to see you again.”

 

She smiled, a sunburst in the gathering dusk. “And you as well.” She motioned with her arm. “Come sit by the fire. I still have a few tasks to finish.”

 

The furnishings were old, but extremely well-made. Fors remembered Stephen had been a skilled craftsman, a magician with his hands. He picked out a seat, not the biggest or smallest, and sat. Kreston lowered himself to a well-worn spot on the hearth, Fors sensing that it was his favorite spot in that room. After a few awkward moments of silence, Kreston asked, “Are your wounds healing?”

 

“Yes, thanks in large part to your mother. The Eyrie is very fortunate to have someone as skilled as she.”

 

The boy hesitated, then spoke, the words pouring out in a rush. “My father spoke of you. He said that at first, he did not like you. But as time went on, he said he gained great respect for you. He called you, “a Star Man of great vision.”

 

Fors bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement. “Stephen was a good and a brave man, a skilled and wise explorer. I always valued his insight; and his friendship.”

 

Silence ensued as the two regarded each other. After a moment, Fors asked, “What is your desire for the future?”

 

Kreston’s head came up, his eyes glowing with pride. “Like you, I am a Star Man’s son. I wish to follow my father’s legacy.”

 

 

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 "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

 

Formatted for online viewing by Jay Watts aka: “Lotsawatts” ~ November, 2017

 

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