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 13

 

It was a cool day two months later when Fors, Wenna, Kreston, and Boros returned to the Eyrie. The journey back had been largely uneventful, and after leaving the Plainsmen and the Southerners at the riverside village, something of a let-down. Kreston’s pony stayed behind, joining the Plainsmen’s herds. The steep, rocky mountain trails were no place for a horse. But over the journey, the two, horse and rider, had become one. Kreston spent a long time with Star, as he had named him, before leaving, speaking with him as Moonrunner had said.

The journey had changed them all. But the most dramatic change was with Kreston. He had grown immeasurably, was far more confident and self-assured, but not arrogant. Fors could see clearly that the boy who had left the Eyrie months ago had returned a man.

It took time to record and share the voluminous amount of information they had brought back to the tribe. Maps were updated, logs were completed, and Fors spent a lot of time speaking with Torin and Jarl about the potential of what they had discovered. The story of Kreston’s heroism against the Pawnee was one of the first stories to make the rounds of the clan circles, and garnered the Star Novice more than his share of attention. Back among the other novices, it was clear how far ahead in the road to the Star he had come. The other novices treated him with awe and respect. Without planning for it, Kreston had become their leader.

About a month after their return, Fors, Lannor, Morden, and Torin were sitting at the main table in the Star House for several hours planning future explorations under the initiative offered by the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes.  Cities in that region, according to maps provided to the Eyrie explorers, were smaller and sparser than in areas usually frequented by the Star House.  But, as Fors reminded them, Moonrunner had indicated that there were other locations he had described as underground fortifications strewn throughout the region, places from which the old ones had planned, practiced, and eventually fought their last war.  These places, Fors reasoned, would likely contain examples of the most advanced technology of the old ones, and may even contain records of those last months.  Those records might hold the secrets of why the old one’s civilization self-destructed.  These were valuable lessons to be learned for a human race struggling to rise again. 

Against that argument were points put forward by Lannor and Morden.  These places were far away, the longest distances ever traveled by the Star House.  And even with horses provided by the Plainsmen and carts contributed by the Southerners, it was a long way to try to bring home much of anything of value.  Torin, sat silently as the discussion went on, asking an occasional question, but not giving weight to either point of view, preferring to wait for a consensus to emerge.

At one point, Fors was trying to describe the machinery in the one silo he had visited, especially the equipment that provided the electrical power to the installation.  “It did not seem to be overly complicated and if one or two of our scientists could study it, perhaps we might…”

His voice trailed away in mid-sentence.  His sensitive hearing had detected the approach of running feet through the open doorway.  The terrain in and around the stronghold was rough and rocky, even the well-traveled areas.  For safety, most people in a hurry would walk rapidly or perhaps trot, but never run.   As the rapid footsteps came nearer, he became worried.  There were very few reasons people would have for running.  And none of them were good.

Presently, the others in the room began to hear the steps and as one, all four men rose to their feet and moved through the doorway.  They all saw one of the Defender officers coming up the Main Path at a full sprint.  He entered the Main Circle heading straight for the Sentry and Defenders House.  Before entering, however, he skidded to a stop, turned towards the Star Men, and called out a single word:

“Talon!”

Torin’s reaction was immediate.

“Lannor, Morden!  Gather the house immediately and issue weapons.  Fors, with me.”  The two jogged to the Sentry and Defenders House.  Fors mouth had gone dry.  

For many years, the Eyrie had relied on a simplified system of alerts.  Anticipating the worst kind of disasters, the Eyrie leaders had formulated a set of automatic responses for such things as wildfire, defense against roving wolf packs, or the discovery of highly contagious illness.  Each response mandated instructions for specific people and groups, insuring that situations that required immediate action could be executed without confusion.  Each response was keyed by a single word. 

Talon was the key word that indicated that the Eyrie was under attack, or soon would be. 

As the two Star Men came near, the door to the armory began erupting men carrying weapons and wearing body armor, heading off to predetermined defensive positions.  In this case, it was important to get the Eyrie’s soldiers deployed. The details would follow later.  Torin paused at the main entrance and announced himself.  From inside, came an immediate response and the two entered. 

One of the Sentry novices escorted them into a large room in the back of the House, where the House Commander, Darvid, stood before a map of the Eyrie stronghold, giving orders.  Seeing the two Star Men, he motioned them towards the side of the room.  Without preamble, he spoke quickly.

“One of our patrols was scouting along the South Escarpment when they came upon a slaughtered deer.  At first they thought it might be a large bear, but in examining the carcass, they found two things.  The imprint of a long, flat, narrow foot with six clawed toes.”  Fors and Torin exchanged worried glances.  Fors asked tersely, “And the other thing?”

Darvid’s hand slammed down on the table’s surface.  When he lifted it up, there revealed was the one thing a Star Man hoped he would never find in his homeland.

A Beast Thing dart. 

Fors thought quickly, speaking his thoughts aloud for the benefit of the others.  “They could not have ascended the escarpment, so they must have come in from another direction.  It is their pattern to explore the perimeter before attacking…”  He looked up at Darvid.  “Have all your sentries been accounted for?”

Darvid’s face became even grimmer.  “Three posts along the East Promontory and the West Ridge were found to be unmanned, and at each there were ample signs of a struggle.  I sent heavy reinforcements to the other posts, but there have been no other messages as yet.”

Fors’ blood turned ice cold.  The Beast Things were here, and the attack was imminent.

Torin placed his hand on Darvid’s shoulder.  “What do you require of the Star House?”

“Gather your men and make ready.  As soon as we can identify their axis of attack, we will send for you.”

Fors spoke, “Darvid, know that Beast Things are devious fighters.  Their first attack will almost certainly not be their main attack.”

Darvid nodded in thanks, and turned back to his lieutenants.  Fors and Torin departed in haste for the Star House.  Upon entering, Torin quickly briefed the assembled Star Men.  Although small in number compared to the Eyrie Defenders, they were experts on fighting the Beast Things, having drawn their blood countless times. 

As they waited, Fors worried over the danger to his family.  Wenna was tough and resourceful, and Kreston, despite being a novice, had proven himself a warrior. But as Fors well knew, fighting the Beast Things was completely different than men.   Suddenly, almost in response to his thoughts, the youngster burst through the doorway, carrying sword and bow.  During a Talon alert, the job of novices was to assemble at the Star House and await instructions.  Although they were listed as defense assets, Star Men all grimly agreed that if the stronghold had to commit children to its defense, things would have to be dark, indeed.

Fors quickly guided the boy to the back of the room.  His young face was flushed, his shoulders tense.  Yet, when Fors looked into Kreston’s eyes, he saw no signs of panic.  In the midst of his own concerns, Fors experienced a flicker of pride.  “Where’s your mother?” 

Kreston took a deep breath.  “Barricaded inside the hospital along with a half-dozen Defenders.  I wanted to stay to protect her, but she ordered me to attend to my duties.”

Fors nodded.  “Kreston, the hospital is one of the strongest buildings in the Eyrie.  We built it that way for a reason.  She will be safe.”  As he spoke, Fors realized he was not only reassuring the boy, but himself as well.  “The other Novices are assembled in the west classroom.  You alone have drawn blood in battle. They will look to you for leadership. Be that leader, for some of them will be very frightened.”  He smiled and squeezed the boy’s shoulder.  At that moment, Kreston’s eyes changed.  For the first time, Fors saw a flicker of fear. 

“Father, I am worried for you.”

Fors crouched down, looking hard into Kreston’s eyes.  “For more than 20 years, I have fought the Beast Things in the lowlands.  Despite their best efforts, I always won.  Now, they have invaded our home, and I will defend this home, and you, at all costs.”  His voice softened somewhat.  “If anything, this will be an easier contest, for today I do not fight alone, and I know intimately the ground over which we give battle.  It is they who should be worried.  Now, go to your post.” 

Kreston stood for a moment, then departed.  Fors returned to the clustered Star Men, putting firmly out of his mind all other considerations but the task at hand.  Within minutes, the first word arrived.  Defenders had engaged a force of about twenty Beast Things along the South Escarpment.  Darvid sent reinforcements and messages to all other units to be alert.  Jarl, having arrived at the Defenders House, gave orders to barricade the cave entrances.  Soon after, Torin and Fors returned to the Defenders House to be closer to the information as it came in.  The room bristled with tension, but nowhere did Fors see any signs of fear or panic.  A messenger burst through the door, announcing that a patrol had surprised, attacked and killed another group of twenty Beast Things on the approach to the West Ridge.  Torin rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as he looked at the map, evaluating the latest information.  Quietly, he murmured a question to Fors, “North Ridge?”

Fors nodded.  “It is the best approach for a large attack.”  Darvid, apparently reached the same conclusion, for at the moment, he beckoned the Star Captain.  Indicating a stretch on the map, he ordered, “Take your men to the North Ridge and dig in.  Let me know the instant you make contact with the enemy.”

Minutes later, the members of the Star House were hard at work constructing breastworks along that rocky ridge.  The land below them was steep, but the rocks were smaller, and the trees not as dense.  The novices pitched in, moving rocks and logs into place.  Fors glimpsed Kreston at one point, apparently having taken charge of a group of novices.  Some were older than him, but willingly followed his directions.  Fors kept an anxious eye down slope as he continued to help pile rocks.  Suddenly, he froze.  Far down the hill, his sharp eyes had caught a bit of movement.  He concentrated hard for several moments and was rewarded by the sight of a smudge of gray apparently skulking from tree to tree.  He looked carefully all along his front, but could see only the one.  Quietly, he told the Star Captain, “Torin; scout.” 

Torin grabbed one of the novices.  Go to the Defenders House and tell Darvid there is one scout approaching the North Ridge.”  The youngster sped down the hill.  Quickly, the word was passed.  The Star Men hunkered down behind the stone wall, the novices retreating about 30 yards back.  His eyes focused down the hill, Fors heard the sounds of preparation, swords and knives being pulled from sheaths, bows being strung, and the clatter of steel-tipped arrows being laid on the rocks.  Within minutes, Fors saw three more scouts approaching.  The four were evenly spaced along a line about a quarter of a mile long.  As they approached, they became more visible, with most of the shielding trees behind them.  With their weapons ready, the line of Star Men laid deathly still.  Fors used that silence and directed his listening downhill, concentrating ferociously.  Suddenly he heard it. A steady sound of many feet striking the ground, dislodging rocks, scraping gravel, and occasionally snapping branches.  Bringing himself out of his near-trance, he turned to the Star Captain and nodded.  Another novice was sent down the hill with the message.  The enemy was coming.  A few minutes later, a large group of Eyrie soldiers arrived and took up positions along the ridge, careful to stay out of sight. 

Torin whispered to Fors.  “Move out to the left and see if you can detect where the end of their line is.”

Fors dropped down the slope below the stone wall and moved rapidly down the line.  He quickly reached the last group of soldiers.  Here, the ridge took a sharp turn to the south becoming a sheer cliff walling off a small canyon.  Here, he paused, returning to his trance.  After a few moments, he began to detect the sounds of the approaching enemy.  The end of the line, he decided, was a bit beyond the end of the Eyrie defense.  Fors was puzzled.  It seemed certain that they had reconnoitered the ground.  Surely they knew they were moving into a blind canyon.  Fors thought furiously.  Something was very wrong here.  He turned to the Sergeant, indicating a point along the cliff.  “Can you place a few archers up there?  It seems that the Beast Things are moving in that direction.”  The Sergeant frowned.  “That makes no sense.” 

Fors replied.  “I know. They fight like that at times.  If nothing else, at least you’ll have some archers protecting your flank.” 

The Sergeant nodded.  “That does make sense.”  He quietly issued some orders and a group of soldiers came off the line and headed for the top of the cliff.  Fors then left and headed back to the center of the line.  Upon arriving, he reported to Torin what he had heard and done.  The Star Captain nodded briefly.  “All we can do now is wait.”

Fors carefully peered over the rocks, looking downrange.  Knowing the maximum effective range of his arrows, he had, as all the Star Men, identified a line that, when crossed, would dictate a response.  Then first line of Beast Things had cleared the tree line and were clearly visible.  Fors looked briefly up and down their own line.  Every man was safely hidden from view.  With luck, the apparent lack of defense would push the grey creatures into a rash act.  As Fors watched, an icy ball seemed to form in the pit of his stomach.  Line after line, the rat-like creatures came out of the tree line, an army of nightmares, more Beast Things than Fors had ever seen in one place. 

Torin’s voice sang out:  “Star Men!  Nock arrows!”

All along the line, steel-tipped arrows were fitted to bowstrings.  Oddly, now that action was imminent, the tension seemed to flow out of them, replaced by the pounding hearts and singing blood of a warrior ready for battle.

“Rise and draw!”  As one, the Star Men came to their feet, drawing their bows taut.

Torin checked the range once more, then gave the order.

“Star Men!  LOOSE!!!”

With a whizzing sound, a forest of war arrows flew into the clear skies.  Already, bows were being reloaded.  Fors watched anxiously as the arrows arced over and descended on the grey horde.  Dozens of them fell, screaming in pain.  Somewhere in their ranks, an order was given, and together they began to run.  On either side, Defender arrows began to fly.  Torin ordered “Loose at will” and the Star Men began firing quickly. 

Fors could see that the volleys were having an effect, but the army kept moving forward.  Suddenly, Fors heard a whooshing sound above his head.  Now he could see massive boulders flying through the air.  With the main axis of attack identified, the Eyrie’s catapults had been committed.  Some of the boulders hit and rolled, crushing grey soldiers in their way.  Others hit the ground and shattered, scattering shards of rock in every direction.  More Beast Things fell, bleeding from deep wounds.  Still, they came.

A quiver full of arrows, landed at his feet.  He turned briefly to see the Novices bringing up more.  All along the line, arrows were being expended at an enormous rate.  Fors could see that at least half of the attackers were down.  However, suddenly they reached into their own bags and began flinging darts up the hill.  Despite their scrawny appearance, the Beast Things had strong arms, able to throw their weapons a long way.  A scream sounded to Fors’ right; two more to his left as three Star Men went down, the barbed points of the darts tearing bloody holes in their flesh.  The remaining Eyrie men were now firing arrows as rapidly as they could, but the time for arrows was rapidly ending.  Torin ordered, “Star Men!  Ready swords!”

Bows dropped and blades, shining in the sunlight were drawn and readied.  Torin looked up and down the line, seeing that the Defenders also had swords ready.  He drew in a breath, then unbelievably, his eyes went wide and his body collapsed, a Beast Thing dart in the side of his head.  Fors felt a moment of shock, then realizing the whole line was waiting, raised his sword, and with every ounce of voice he possessed, roared, “For the Eyrie!  CHARGE!!!”

As one, every man along the line leaped over the wall and sprinted down the hill as fast as they could.  Within seconds, they met the fore of the Beast Thing army.  Swords flashed and the ugly sounds of torn flesh and gushing blood combined with the shouts and screams of Eyrie men and the guttural roars of the enemy.  Allowing his instincts to take over, Fors swung his sword, slashing, cutting, thrusting while moving side to side in an irregular fashion.  Beast Things did not use swords, but close in, their darts were excellent defensive weapons, their barbed points inflicting ghastly wounds. 

The fight seemed to go on forever.  At one point, Fors spun to his left, beheading one enemy.  He turned back to his right to meet a new attacker when a searing pain flared along his right arm.  The Beast Thing, seeing the blood and torn flesh, grinned evilly.  Then, Fors saw the creature’s eyes go wide, the grey body collapsing to the ground.  He looked, surprised to see Kreston withdrawing a bloody sword from the enemy’s back.  In terror, Fors saw another Beast Thing charging the boy from his unprotected back.  Kreston spun into a crouch, sweeping his blade.  The Thing went down, one leg severed.  Fors quickly applied the killing stroke, then together the two fought on. 

Time went away in a maelstrom of violence.  Fors did not think, but only reacted, his body responding with the training and the dark lessons of combat.  He noted with satisfaction that Kreston did not attack wildly, but kept himself in a position to protect his father’s blind side.  Around the two, the battle raged on.

Suddenly, the field went silent.  Fors spun quickly, searching for a new target and seeing none.  It took a moment to sink in, the knowledge that the battle was over.  The hillside was covered by the grey bodies of the enemy, but as Fors somberly noted, the Eyrie had also paid a terrible price.  The surviving defenders began to move among the bodies, grimly silencing those who still showed signs of life.  Fors felt Kreston pull him to a seated position on the stone wall and began to clean and dress his wounded arm.  Within minutes, the jagged tear was wrapped in white bandages.  It would need stitches, but for now, at least the bleeding was under control.  Nodding in appreciation, he said, “Well done.  Thank you.”

The young man shrugged.  “If I hadn’t, your wife would never forgive me.”  His eyes looked across the battlefield, a sober expression on his young face.  “I did not think these creatures fought this way.”

Fors shook his head.  “They have never done this before.  We have fought them in the cities, we have fought them in the fields, but never have they ranged this far and acted with this much organization.”

“Somewhere upon this field lies the leader…”

Fors rose.  “And we shall find him.”

Together, they walked among the dead and dying.  At one point, they came across one of the creatures gasping from a wounded chest.  Fors began to raise his sword to do what must be done, but Kreston acted first, driving his sword through the sunken chest.  Surprised, Fors turned towards the boy.  The young face was not, however darkened in hate, but instead wearing a look of sad regret.  “Somehow, I felt it would be…easier.”

Fors put his hand on Kreston’s shoulder.  “Only a barbarian loves killing.”

In the center of the field, a large fire had been lit and surviving Eyrie men began to carry the enemy dead to the flames.  The two continued to search the field until they found what they were looking for.

Beyond the last rank, a small knot of Beast Things lay.  Four were arrayed in a semi-circle around a single, larger creature.  Just beyond the semi-circle lay the lifeless bodies of three Defenders and two Star Men.   Fors realized that these four were guards who had died protecting the one in the middle.  Coming closer, the Star Man realized with a jolt that this one was still alive.  He was breathing in short gasps and bleeding from several wounds, but what drew Fors’ attention was the Thing’s head.  Rather than the usual flat, sloped forehead, this one possessed a domed skull and a tall forehead.  The mouth seemed more human, and the eyes that looked up at him were different.  He had seen this once before on that terrible field from his youth. There was intelligence here. 

Fors crouched down, eyeing the creature.  Instinctively, he asked a question.

“Why?”

Then, unbelievably, it spoke.

“You…attack…we…homes.  We attack you homes.”  The voice was guttural, but understandable.

“No.  We explore.  We do not attack.”

The Thing snarled, “To explore...is…to…invade.”

Fors thought rapidly.  While the Eyrie had explored dead cities, they had never left an occupying army behind.  But to the Beast Things, such subtleties were probably meaningless.  They would only see strangers among their homes.  Suddenly, a flicker of an idea was born within his mind.  There was perhaps an opportunity here, an avenue that might lead to the end of centuries of violent conflict.  He turned to Kreston.  “Go get a litter and the two strongest Novices and return quickly.”  The boy vanished.

The creature spoke, “You kill me now.”

Fors, surprising himself, placed his hand gently on the creature’s shoulder.  “No. We care for you now.”

 

 

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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.