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 11

 

They traveled for several days without incident, proceeding in a generally northwest direction.  By agreement, they stayed clear of ruins because they had a long way to go and time was of the essence.  The seemingly endless prairie through which they traveled was covered mostly by tall grass, although the landscape was dotted here and there with grains that had grown wild from previously tilled fields.  Game was plenty enough to fill their pots, though rivers and streams were few, forcing them to manage their water supply.  On they rode, a main column of the horses and carts with groups of outriders on both sides, scouting.  The terrain was mostly flat and the rivers that had to be crossed were easily forded.  The heavy carts had been built to be watertight, so when the horses and ponies waded into the waters, the carts floated compliantly along behind them, like boats.

 

As the days wore on, the weather grew warmer and more humid.  On the 9th day, the expedition encountered heavy thunderstorms.  Fierce lightning bolts split nearby trees and hail poured out of the sky, injuring a few riders.  However, Wenna’s treatment was swift and effective, and they were soon on the mend.  While they were stopped, though, a curious event occurred.  The air, so recently stormy grew very quiet, the sky taking on a greenish hue.  To the north, a large cloud began to rotate and out of the bottom came a funnel-shaped cloud.  It roared along the ground for a mile or so before lifting back into the sky.  Later, as they approached that area, they saw that the ground had been scoured and swept clear.  Trees lay twisted and broken along the storm’s path.  The mountaineers were certainly no stranger to violent storms, but this was something utterly outside their experience and it frightened them.

 

In the third week of the journey, they came upon the junction of two great rivers, one flowing south, and the other west.  A large city lay right at the junction, but luck was with them and they found two intact bridges over which they carefully crossed.  The westward-flowing river must have been a transportation system of great commerce, since several very large ruined cities lay along its shores.  However tempting it was for the Eyrie contingent to explore, Fors knew that the calendar was against them.  To avoid any hostile contact, they gave the ruins a very wide berth, though taking the time to carefully plot them on their maps.  Another seven days, and the great river took a bend to the northwestward, again in the shadow of another large city, and they followed its shores until they came to a branching river.  At this point, they had to cross the great river, which was too deep and swift to ford, and the available bridges were too fragile to use, they made camp and spent several days building rafts to carry them across.  The crossing was difficult and dangerous.  One of the rafts snagged on an underwater tree limb and upended, spilling its horse, cart and passengers into the brown waters.  Two of their party vanished, a southerner and a plainsman.  The horse, though frightened, managed to make the far shore along with the cart floating behind.

 

That night, gathered around the fires that held back the darkness, the explorers were silent. Kreston, Fors could see, was trying to be strong in the face of his first experience with death. Fors sat close by, waiting the inevitable questions. Sellen approached their fire and joined them. Fors turned his attention to the Plainsman who bore the responsibility for the death of those in his charge. His face was grim.

 

Fors spoke first. “Sellen, I offer my sorrows on the loss of your kinsmen.”

 

The Plainsman nodded, acknowledging the sentiment. “In all these years, in all these expeditions, it never gets easier when I lose someone.” He turned to Kreston and a small smile creased his lips. “You are a novice, are you not?” Kreston, in awe of the big Plainsman, nodded. Sellen said, “Exploring is exciting. To wander the trails, to see things no one else has is fulfillment. When we are young, we dream of such things. But when we become of age, and take to these lands, we must understand the risk to life and limb that is always present. It is in times like these when we discover how strong, or how weak we actually are.”

 

Kreston spoke, his voice reflecting his powerful emotions. “I keep thinking of their families, of the sorrow they will know upon our return.” He looked up at Sellen. “I know that these brave men were not the first to…die. And yet, we, all of us, still send our people into the unknown.” He thought for a moment. “I think it is the desire to know the unknown, and the willingness to seek it that drives us to places like this.” He lowered his head. “Even at the risk of death.”

 

Sellen looked carefully at the young Star Novice for a time. He then looked at Fors.

 

“He is wise for one so young.” He placed his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder. “They knew the risks. And above all, they would want us to find the courage to continue on.” With that, he rose and went to his sleeping shelter.

 

Kreston was still wrestling with thoughts within, Fors could see. Finally he looked straight into the older man’s eyes and said, “I do not want to lose my mother. Or you, Father.”

 

Fors put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Let us make an agreement. We shall look out for each other.”

 

Kreston nodded, and the two retired for the night.

 

Grimly, they pressed on the next morning.  

 

Another month went by, day after day of endless prairie.  Fors passed the hours learning from Sellen the language of signs they would use to converse. Sellen also told Fors about the tribes themselves, what history he knew and some of their customs.  Fors listened intently.  Even the most primitive groups of humans had rites and protocols which had to be observed.  He had no intention of allowing this opportunity to vanish in the flame of an insult, however unintentional.

 

They stayed close to a smaller river lined by cottonwood trees.  But even this smaller course held unseen dangers.  Kreston waded into the waters attempting to capture some fish with a net he had fashioned, only to be stuck in a queer kind of wet sand that pulled him slowly under.  Responding to his calls, a rope was swiftly passed to him, although it took four strong men to pull him from the river.  Later that day, one of the Plains horses was struck by a large snake, its powerful venom killing the animal in minutes.  

 

For all their encounters, the apparent emptiness of the land was almost overwhelming.  The tall prairie grasses, bending in the ever-present winds, made a steady shh-ing sound that not only became annoying, but also blunted their hearing.  Even Fors had trouble isolating any sounds other than the winds and the grass.  

 

Then one day, they crested a low ridge to behold a sight that would stay with them to the end of their lives.  Below the ridge was a massive herd of creatures unlike anything they had ever seen or imagined.  Covered in brown fur, the head was massive and fronted by two horns.  Behind the head was a large hump that tapered to impossibly small rear hips.  The legs seemed too thin to carry such a bulk.  This herd covered the ground for as far as they could see.  Suddenly, one of the beasts looked in their direction and snorted.  With that warning, the entire herd turned and ran, fortunately in the opposite direction from the expedition.  They stood, awestruck, as the ground shook with their passage.

 

 

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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.