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 9

 

 

The snows had 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.  He 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.  Kreston was working very hard on his training, readying himself for the Great Council Fire that was fast approaching.  Torin was keeping his own council on the decisions, but Fors knew he had been watching the youngster from time to time.  The boy continually plied Fors with questions that echoed the anxiety he had to have been feeling, the answers to which Fors could not give. 

 

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. 

 

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.  They both heard a shout, and turning, the saw a runner approaching.  The message was that Fors had to return to the Eyrie immediately.  The three together 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 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.  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.  On their walk down, Arskane had drawn the odd looks of many of Fors' people, almost none of whom had ever before seen a dark-skinned man.  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.  "You're 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 tended to demonstrate a tied tongue. 

 

The 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 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."

 

There was a short pause, then Arskane said.  "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."

 

Fors nodded.  Soon after, they both retired.  Fors lay in bed next to his sleeping wife, but sleep came with difficulty as he worried about the Eyrie's safety.

 

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 also 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 myself.  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, Kreston listening in awestruck silence. 

 

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, who wore a look of 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 sighed, resting his chin in his left hand, eyeing Wenna carefully.  Turning to Fors, he said, "She is a wiley 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.


 

 

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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.