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 12

 

Six weeks into their journey, they made their first contact.  It was a brutally hot day and the heat had made them all somnolent.  Fors had been watching the horizon and glanced away from the endless rolling grassy hills.  When he looked back, he saw a horse and rider at the crest of a ridge.  At first he thought it was one of the outriders, but as he focused his vision, he knew immediately. 

 

“Sellen.  Visitor. Up ahead on the ridge.”

 

The Plainsman squinted into the bright sunlight, then raised his hand, halting the column.  Turning, he said quietly.  “Wait here.”  Turning to the mountaineer, he said, “Fors, with me.”

 

Spurring their horses, they cantered towards the ridge.  As they came closer, Fors saw that the rider was bare-chested, his skin deeply tanned.  Around his waist, he wore a simple cloth secured by a belt from which hung a hunting knife.  His shoes were made of soft leather and around his neck was some kind of necklace that looked to be made of eagle claws.  The face was angular with dark, piercing eyes.  Like the Plainsman, he wore his hair long, but in braids.  But unlike the light brown to yellow hair of the Plainsmen, the stranger’s was jet black.  On his head was a leather band holding a single eagle feather.  Sellen stopped a short distance away, then after a pause, raised his right hand, open palm towards the mysterious rider, who responded with a like gesture.  Sellen then began a complex series of signs, which were rendered too fast for Fors to follow.  After apparently completing his message, the rider responded with gestures of his own.  Then he turned to look along the ridge, making a minute gesture with his head.  Fors was shocked to see others dressed similarly rise from the tall grass where they had been hiding.  There were about 50 of them, all seeming to appear out of thin air.  The rider signed back to Sellen, after which the Plainsman turned and waved to the column to follow.  They followed down the back side of the ridge and came upon another group surrounding the expedition’s six outriders, obviously captured.

 

For the next hour or so, they traversed the landscape.  Then they crossed a shallow stream, climbed a low hill and found themselves looking at a village.  Conical-shaped dwellings of animal hide were arranged in circular groups, all lying along the twisting bank of a small river.  They paused at the crest of the hill until they were recognized, and then went down the hill into the encampment.  Intently, Fors tried to take in as much as he possibly could.  There were women and children present, the women and girls wearing dresses of fringed leather, the boys wearing the cloths around their middle.  Remarkably, as they approached, the members of the tribe paid them almost no attention.  A few smaller children stared curiously until rebuked by their elders.  The tribesmen who had escorted them – Fors was still unsure whether or not they were prisoners or merely guests – went their separate ways, going to their individual dwellings.  One of them turned and made gestures to Sellen.  After responding, he turned and told the group, “Dismount and rest, but keep watch over the carts and supplies.”  Turning then to Fors and Arskane, he said, “Follow me.  We’re going to meet the Chief of this band.”

 

The three dismounted, taking the time to remove their leather chaps.  Three young boys came up and took the reins.  Sellen nodded at the other two.  “They will see to our horses.”  

 

Stiff from the long ride, they walked towards the center of the camp.  There they saw one dwelling on one side of a circle of stones.  Sellen murmured, “Watch me carefully and do what I do.”  

 

Instead of walking straight to the dwelling, he followed the outer edge of the circle around until they came to the entrance of the hide shelter.  There, they stopped.  As they waited, Fors noted with interest that the hide was decorated with pictures, hundreds of them.  They seemed to be arranged in specific ways, and the Star Man wondered if this was a record of some kind.

 

Presently, a woman approached from the opposite arc of the circle and without a word or glance at the visitors, went inside.  Fors could hear the murmur of some conversation, then the hide door opened again, and the woman bade them to enter.  Sellen gave them one more whispered advisory: 

 

 “Remember!  Walk around the circle, never across it.”

 

Fors, following Sellen, stooped low to enter the dwelling.  Inside, it was very dim, almost dark.  The transition from the very bright sun outside was abrupt.  They waited for a few moments until their eyes adjusted enough to see.  In the middle was a small circle of glowing embers. What they were using for fuel smelled sweetish, unlike no wood Fors, a veteran of many campfires, had ever smelled.  Arranged around the fire like the spokes of a wheel were robes of black fur.  With a start, Fors realized that these beds were lined with the skins of those magnificent creatures they had seen on the prairie.  The dwellings must also be the hide of those creatures, as large as they were.

 

Suddenly, a voice, not loud but deep and penetrating, issued from an individual sitting cross-legged on the floor, directly opposite the door.  “Welcome to my lodge.  Sit and we will smoke your arrival.”  Though heavily accented and occasionally mispronounced, it was nonetheless the familiar sound of the Plains tongue.  Inwardly, Fors breathed a sigh of relief.  His task had just become much easier.  The woman gestured to one of the beds to the Chief’s left and the three sat down and crossed their legs.

 

The Chief produced a curious instrument.  It consisted of a long tube with a small cup or bowl on one end, and decorated with feathers.  Reaching into a pouch, he took some of the contents and filled the bowl.  He then reached into the fire and removed an ember, which he touched to the contents.  Suddenly, the inside of the tent was filled with a delightfully spicy smell.  The Chief then made a series of gestures, which Fors surmised constituted offering the pipe to the four compass directions.  He then placed one end of the tube in his mouth and drew the smoke into his lungs.  He then passed the pipe to Sellen, who imitated the gesture.  Arskane, whose tribal rituals included pipe traditions, drew the smoke easily into his lungs.  Fors was curious.  Being of the mountains, smoking was unknown, since tobacco of any kind was never available to them.  Arskane passed the pipe, and after a slight pause, Fors placed the pipe in his mouth and inhaled.  The taste was pleasant, but the smoke was not.  Fors desperately wanted to cough, and he felt immediately light-headed and dizzy, but managed to get through the ritual without falling over or throwing up. 

 

The pipe was passed back to the Chief, who emptied the remaining contents of the bowl into the fire.  After carefully returning the pipe to its rightful place, he then turned to Sellen and began to speak.

 

“Horseman, I am pleased to be with you once again.  You have made the long journey in the cause of peace and friendship and my heart soars.  Who are these others you have brought with you?  They are so very different than you.”

 

Sellen nodded.  “We are different in skin and hair, but our hearts are all straight with each other.”  Indicating Arskane, he continued.  “This is Arskane of the Tribe of Silver Wings.  His great-great-grandfathers once flew in the skies in craft like birds.”  Turning to the mountaineer, he said, “And this is Fors of the Tribe of the Eyrie who live in the Mountains which smoke.  Their great-great grandfathers once dreamed of journeys to the stars.” He paused, “My brothers, this is Dancing Eagle, Chief of the Medicine Wheel band of the Lakota Tribe.”

 

Turning to Fors, the Chief said, “You are the Peace Talker.  I have been told that you have the gift of tongues and hearts.  You help those who are blinded by hate to see each other clearly.”

 

Fors glanced at Sellen, who nodded, then replied, “We have come in peace, seeking friendship and knowledge.  We desire to help the people of all tribes to live together in understanding, and to forever eliminate the scourge of war.”

 

Dancing Eagle regarded Fors for a moment, then said, “Your heart speaks with truth, and your words are in harmony with your heart.  Welcome to my lodge.”

 

The three were then fed a simple ceremonial meal of stew in clay bowls.  They spoke several more times, then the Chief arose and indicated that the three were to follow him.  They exited the lodge as the sun settled into the western horizon to find the entire tribe assembled just outside.  The Chief spoke for a few minutes, a speech animated by gestures with a ceremonial lance.  At the end of the speech, the tribe undertook a remarkable transformation.  Their faces, which had been watchful, yet unexpressive, suddenly lit up with smiles as they welcomed, not only Fors, Arskane, and Sellen, but the entire party.

 

That night, a feast was given.  The expedition contributed food from their supplies, giving the Lakota a sampling of all three cuisines.  Some of the Lakota men performed a dance around the blazing campfire.  Following their lead, some of the Southerners danced as well.  Four Plainsmen sang a series of their tribal songs.  Fors, lacking any talents for song or dance, presented to Dancing Eagle a silver headband etched with the Eyrie’s symbol and the crests of the twelve clans.  His gift caused a chorus of “How-How” to rumble from the Lakota.  Glancing quickly at Sellen, he was reassured by a smile and a nod.  

 

Eventually, the celebration wound down and the Lakota began to return to their tents, which Fors now knew to be called lodges.  The expedition quickly set up their tent shelters and retired, utterly exhausted.

 

Over the next week, they all fell into the rhythm of the Lakota life.  They were delighted to discover that several members of the tribe had learned the Plains language.  Through them, they spoke with many others, learning of their culture, beliefs, and traditions of the tribe.  They discovered that the Lakota were a large tribe, numbering in the tens of thousands, scattered in small bands, like the Medicine Wheel across a wide swath of territory.  They also learned that the Lakota had enemies, tribes called Pawnee and Crow, which whom they had fought for centuries even before the old ones had arrived in their territory.

 

A story was told repeatedly of the old one’s war, a tale of fire arrows rising out of the ground and soaring into the sky.  At first, Fors tended to dismiss the story as part of an imaginative lore.  But one day, a warrior named Rising Star took Fors, Arskane, Sellen, along with Kreston and Wenna, on a journey to the north.  After several hours, they came upon a curious structure.  A hard concrete surface covered the ground.  In the center was a dark, dank hole that disappeared into the ground.  Rising Star took them to a small structure off to the side and into a door.  They carefully descended into the depths on hard, but slippery steps.  Entering one chamber, Rising Star lit a small torch and directed them to a diagram on the wall.  Pointing at the object, he said, “The fire arrow.”  They studied it for a few moments, but it was Arskane who recognized it for what it was.

 

“This was a missile.  It was how the Old Ones sent their bombs towards their enemies.  See, here at the bottom was where the fire came out that drove the missiles into the air.  And at this end,” indicating a cone-shaped structure at the top, “was where the bombs rode.”  Turning to Fors, he continued somberly, “In another form, this is what your forebears would have ridden to the stars.”

 

They continued to explore, finding obvious sleeping quarters arranged off the sides of the empty tube. At one point, Fors saw one very heavy door. He asked Rising Star, “Have you ever been through this door?” The Lakota shook his head. Fors, ever aware of protocol, asked, “May I open it?” Rising Star looked back at Fors, his expression utterly unreadable. After a moment, he responded, “Doors hide things that sometimes we wish we had never seen. But you are curious.” He made a minute gesture with his hand, giving permission. Fors turned his attention back to the door. After several minutes of study, he identified a lever that might be the right handle. With all his strength, he pushed. Gradually, the lever began to move, the steel screeching annoyingly. Fors was about to give up when suddenly the resistance disappeared, and the unlocked door creaked open.

 

Taking the torch from Rising Star, Fors entered a room that hadn’t been occupied in almost 300 years.

 

The room was full of equipment, none of which Fors was able to identify. On the walls were racks filled with black boxes with dials and indicators on them. In the center of the room were two large pieces of equipment next to each other, which, after careful examination proved to be identical. In front were the remains of two metal chairs. Fors looked carefully at the numerous switches, trying to decipher the faded print. On the bottom row, at the extreme left end of one, and the extreme right of the other was a kind of lock. Carefully, the mountaineer read the words.

 

Launch Key.

 

Suddenly, he understood. This was the place from which the missile had been sent on its destructive mission. A room, once full of unanswered questions, now had its terrible purpose revealed.

 

They climbed out of the structure back into the bright sunshine.  Fors felt the old familiar frustration at the Old Ones.  Such magnificent knowledge, and yet they turned it against each other, destroying the promise of the future.

 

They started on the journey back to the village a quiet group, each alone with their thoughts.  After a couple of hours, they saw Rising Star suddenly wheel to the right, urging his horse to a wild gallop.  The rest followed, slower.  When they caught up to their companion, he had gotten off his horse and was creeping slowly up a low hill.  Following suit, the rest of the party crept up as well.  Looking over the crest of the hill, they saw a herd of small animals, resembling deer, but smaller and with straight horns on their heads instead of antlers.  Arskane whispered, “What are they?”

 

Rising Star grinned.  “Fresh meat!”

 

The hunt was planned carefully.  They would approach the herd from four sides at once, hopefully giving them no place to run.  Kreston and Arskane waited at the west side, Fors taking the north, while Rising Star took the longest distance, and the most critical position on the east. Wenna, looking decidedly out of her element, took her horse to the south, where a rocky ridge buttressed her position.

 

When they were ready, Rising Star sent an arrow into the animal nearest him.  That sparked the whole heard to turn to the west.  And could they run!  Fors had never seen an animal with such speed.  But before they went too far, Kreston stood and quickly loosed three arrows, dropping two animals.  The herd then split, half going north towards Sellen, and the other half heading in Fors’ direction.  Fors fired a half-dozen arrows in quick succession, then the herd was upon him.  The animals did not trample him, but rather made quick, graceful leaps over and to either side of the Star Man.  Fors drew his sword and managed to drop four more animals before the remainder of the herd flashed by to be swallowed up by the prairie.  

 

Fors could see that Sellen had been successful as well, getting three with his rope-and-stone and two with his lance.  All told, eleven of the graceful animals, which Rising Star called Antelope, had been killed.  They dressed the animals for travel and loaded them onto the horses.  Before leaving however, Rising Star summoned Kreston.  When the boy came close, Rising Star cut into the chest of one of the Antelope and pulled out the heart, bloody and still palpitating.  With great relish, he bit into the heart and swallowed it, letting out a joyous yell.  He then held the heart out the Kreston.  The boy paled, but after a bit of hesitation, bit into the red mass.  He had to chew through the blood vessels, but managed to gnaw off and swallow a suitably sized chunk.  Although looking a bit ill, he also let out a yell to Rising Star’s apparent joy.  Immediately, the Lakota removed the claw necklace from his neck and placed it on the boy.  

 

Fors walked with his son back to their horses.  “How do you feel?”

 

The boy stopped.  “You know, it was pretty bad at first.  But when I swallowed it, I felt my calves hum like I could have run for days.”  He paused, then looked up at Fors.  “Was this what you call “Diplomacy?”    

 

 

Several days later, Rising Star and another tribesman named Red Sun led the visitors further to the west. After two long days, they encountered others. Fors, even with his limited experience, could see that these new men wore their clothes differently. After some signed “talk,” they followed the new encounters for several hours, arriving at a new camp. Red Sun told Fors, Sellen, and Arskane that this was a tribe called Tsehestano, who had been friends of the Lakota “for many, many moons.”

 

Dismounting from their horses, they were ushered into the lodge of the Chief, named Running Wolf. Despite the gravity of the meeting, Running Wolf revealed a certain good humor as the visitors tried with limited success to pronounce the name of the tribe. He spoke, “The name we were once known by those with skin of your color was “Cheyenne.” Perhaps that will be easier for you to say.”

 

They spent several days with the Cheyenne, learning about the differences between the two tribes. Fors especially became fascinated by the many intricate rites and ceremonies of both tribes. One morning, he accompanied the tribe’s men down to the nearby river where all plunged into the cool water, a daily ritual. He had befriended a man named Moonrunner and after the swim, the two walked together across the prairie, drying in the warming sun. Moonrunner asked many questions about the Eyrie, which Fors answered as completely as he was able. At one point, Fors asked, “I am curious as to why you and the Lakota continue to war with the Crow and Pawnee. Would it not be better for you to make peace?”

 

Moonrunner replied, “We do not look upon war the same way. For us, it is a contest of strength and honor; a way to measure each other as men. They steal our horses, and then we go and steal them back. They encroach on our territory, and we drive them back, and then we do the same to them.” He stopped and turned to Fors. “One of the bravest things a warrior can do is to count coup. This is done without weapons, but with a small lance. As a warrior rides into the enemy group, he uses the lance to touch the other warriors, and then ride away. All appreciate this display of courage.”

 

“But you still kill each other?”

 

Moonrunner held Fors’ gaze, then said, “This is a harsh land, my friend, filled with many dangers. We must remain strong if we are to survive.” He looked down, thoughtful. “The wolf stalks the antelope and the buffalo, so one might assume they were enemies. But the wolf only takes the weak, the slow, the old. Therefore, the wolf, by killing the weak who would only make more weak animals, actually strengthens the herds.” His head came up, his eyes meeting the mountaineer’s. “Like the antelope, the buffalo, and the wolf, without the Crow and Pawnee to keep us strong, and us keeping them strong as well, we would all become weak and sick, and eventually, die.”

 

It was a perspective Fors had never heard before.

 

Two nights later, Fors was suddenly awakened in his lodge. At first, he wasn’t sure why. He closed his eyes and concentrated, stretching out his hearing beyond the walls of the lodge. At first, there was nothing but the restless wind and the subdued breathing sounds from the other occupants of the lodge. Then he heard it. A muffled footfall, the slight rasp of a body moving through the grass. He sat up, unsure exactly what to do. But his sudden movement roused Moonrunner who looked at Fors uncertainly. Fors turned towards his friend and made signs for “man” and pointed towards where the sound had come from. Without hesitation, the warrior rose and retrieved his bow and quiver and moved towards the entrance. He crouched there, also listening. Then, without warning he gave forth a loud cry:

 

“HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY!!!!”       

 

Instantly, the camp came awake, warriors rushing out of their lodges into the uncertain light of a quarter-moon. Fors grabbed his weapons and hurried outside as well. His mutated vision took in the sight of several strangers, three moving into the clan circles, while others were running towards the pony herd. The air was filled with the swish of loosed arrows and the grunts of those in close combat. Fors moved quickly towards the lodge where he knew Wenna and Kreston were…had been sleeping. He saw an enormous man with his hair cut in a narrow ridge down the center of his scalp pull aside the entrance flap. Fors reached for a steel-tipped arrow but before he could shoot, he heard the unmistakable “thunk-thunk” sound of arrows hitting bone. The stranger staggered back and fell. Young Kreston had become a warrior.

 

It was over quickly. All the invaders had been killed, and Wenna was working desperately over one of the fallen Cheyenne. Kreston was standing over the man he had killed, staring. Fors went immediately to his son. Without looking up, the boy – young man began speaking.

 

“The war cry woke me up, and without thinking, I got my bow strung and an arrow ready, faster than I’ve ever done. I heard him approach the entrance and as soon as I saw him, I shot. When he didn’t go down, I shot another arrow.” His voice began to shake, and suddenly he leaned over and convulsed what was left of his dinner on top of the dead warrior.

 

Fors waited until he had finished, then helped him back upright. “Well, I would say that you obviously took the bow lessons to heart.” He paused. “Wandering the lowlands is always dangerous, even when and where we feel safety. The first time any of us has to kill, it is serious. But make no mistake. Had you not acted,” Fors bent down and retrieved what appeared to be a kind of axe, “then this would have ended up in your head. And your mother’s as well.” Fors took him by the shoulders. “You saved lives tonight. They will see you as a warrior. You must prepare to receive that honor.”

 

Of course, no one went back to sleep. Running Wolf walked around the camp, taking stock of what had happened. The expedition members gathered, sharing stories. It didn’t take long for Kreston’s act of courage to make the rounds. All the members of the tribe took the time to speak to him, and to give him gifts. About mid-morning, the tribe gathered in front of Running Wolf’s lodge. In a stirring oration, he praised Fors for the early warning, and the warriors who met and killed the enemy. But he saved his finest words for Kreston. He went on for some time speaking of courage, quick thinking, and the willingness to stand between the enemy and the unprotected. At the end of his speech, he motioned Kreston forward, and attached a single eagle feather to his hair. He then said, “He has proven himself a warrior, and from this day forward, he shall be known as Taa’e Hoahno.” Turning towards Fors, he translated, “Night Shield.”

 

With that, the entire tribe raised their arms and gave forth with another cry, one of praise.

 

The next day, Sellen, ever mindful of the passage of time, told the expedition members to prepare for the return journey. They carefully re-packed the carts and saddlebags, adding the many gifts showered upon them by both tribes. There was a final ceremony where as a final tribute, every member of the expedition was given membership in both tribes, and the promise of safe passage through their lands. As they were preparing to leave, two warriors, one Lakota, one Cheyenne, walked up to Kreston leading a spotted pony and passed the halter to the surprised mountaineer. Moonrunner then helped the young man up onto the pony’s back. He then said,

 

“Taa’e Hoahno, this is your pony. He is also your friend and companion. Speak to him often, share stories of courage and victory. Do not be afraid to tell him anything, for a warrior shares secrets with his pony that he shares with no one else. As you ride with him, he rides with you; and we shall all ride with you in spirit.”

 

With that, Sellen gave the signal and the caravan began to move. In their wake, the tribe sent them on their way with drum beats and a song.

 

“Great Spirit, hear my voice

Guard my friends, these travelers;

Send your Eagles to watch over them

And may they come back to me.”

 

Fors felt a lump grow in his throat, and looking at his companions, he knew he was not alone. With heavy hearts, they began the long trail back.

 

 

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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.