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 15

 

Over the next few days, burials were held for the dead, the numbers of which were less than Fors had originally feared.  There were many wounded and some were permanently crippled, but the excellent care of the Eyrie Healers were bringing them back to health.  Fors had tackled his new duties, finding out how complicated the leadership of the Star House was.  But as time passed, he became much more familiar with the required tasks, the most important being the restoration of the ranks of the Star Men.  Eleven members of the House had fallen in the battle.  Nine others were nursing wounds of differing severity, two of whom were permanently disabled.  In essence, the Star House’s effectiveness had been reduced by two-thirds.  After consideration, Fors canceled all remaining explorations and put the entire house to work training novices.  Three weeks after the battle, Jarl presided over an unprecedented Council Fire, a second night of choosing.  Twenty-two new Star Novices were chosen and immediately placed into training. 

General Tarkus had become a familiar site as he took the walks necessary to his recovery.  At first, his appearances inspired fear and even hate.  Over time however, as more and more people spoke with the Hamassa leader, they were won over by his sincere expressions and desire for peace.  He was always accompanied by two Defenders, more for his safety than any real security concerns.  He and Jarl spoke often and at great length as they planned the most important diplomatic effort since the end of the Old One’s War.   A runner had been sent to the River City and brought back Arskane and Markanna, who also met with Tarkus several times. 

The sun was low in the west and a cold north breeze was flowing through the Eyrie.  Fors, Arskane, Markanna, and Jarl were seated around the table in the Star House.  Their faces were grim.  Arskane was speaking slowly, but with seriousness.

“I have seen and spoken with Tarkus, and despite my initial…cynicism, I am of the opinion that he is sincere.  But I know that my people, who have fought the Beast Things and seen their kinsmen fall will find it difficult to extend the hand of peace after so much death.”  He gestured minutely at Markanna.  “Of course, I would not presume to speak for my Plains brothers.”

The banded head of the Plainsman nodded in sober agreement.  “The Plains tribes are people of great passion, and the passion that lives in their hearts towards the Be— the Hamassa,” he corrected himself, “has always been one of fear.  And hate.”  He sighed, then looked up at the two Mountaineers.  “I too fear that they will be slow to recognize the opportunity handed to us all.  Were I to show up at the Council of the Tents with Tarkus in tow, I fear I would meet a council of firmly closed minds, and probably, raised lances.”

Jarl spoke, “Once many years ago the two of you met on another field, determined to kill; and yet today you live as brother and sister.”  He leaned forward, his voice gently persuasive.  “Brothers, I have come to know you both as warriors of uncommon courage and intelligence.  But over the years, I have also seen in you the gift of vision; the ability to see beyond the present to the future.  Clearly we have two choices before us.  We can make peace and bring an end to war.”  He leaned back in his chair, his voice going flat with finality, “Or we can go the way of the Old Ones and watch the slow destruction of all that is left.”

Markanna’s eyes flashed, but kept his voice level.  “Guardian, none here deny knowledge of that choice.  But to offer it to our people without…preparation would be folly and would risk losing all that has been accomplished thus far.”

Arskane said, “Markanna speaks wisely.  It is clear that we must prepare our people before the leaders meet with Tarkus.”  He paused and frowned, “But the question that I cannot put behind me is this:  Does Tarkus speak for the Hamassa?  Will his people require… ‘preparation’ as well?”

The four were silent for a time.  In the quiet, Fors could hear the breeze rustling the trees.  Idly, he watched as the last of the leaves were dislodged and fell, the sign of the approaching winter.  Inwardly, he felt that old familiar frustration, borne of trying to get people to see the same vision; to lay aside the blood of the past for the brotherhood of the future.  He turned towards Jarl, watching as the familiar mien of decision came over the Guardian’s features.  He spoke.

“Arskane and Markanna, I honor the efforts you have made, and the wisdom you have shared.  I agree that we must not rush forward; we must not attempt to force an idea on people who still have to put the past behind them.”  He paused, then continued.  “You are not of my tribe; I hold no power of command over you.  However I urge you, as men of courage and vision, to undertake the mission of convincing them.  To you, they will listen.  And perhaps, in time, they will listen to Tarkus. I wish you well on your journey.”  He paused again, then turned to Fors.

“Kinsman, I have a task for you.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Fors was stunned into complete silence.  He even found breathing somewhat difficult.  The words of Jarl's proposal hung in the air like a mountain mist.  After several moments, Fors finally found his voice. Incredulously, he asked,

"You want me to go before the Hamassa Ruling Council?"

"Yes.  With General Tarkus you will go and offer peace to those who have been our gravest enemies."

Fors half-turned, as if to deflect the order.  "Guardian, I -- surely Tarkus should go alone!"

The older man shook his head, his lips a grim line.  "Actions give truth to words.  By sending an emissary, we will prove to them that we are serious about peace."

Fors, his tone perilously close to insubordination, said, "There is no way to predict their reaction.  They could also interpret that as an ultimatum; a prelude to war!  The peace would collapse before it even had a chance to get started."

Jarl’s voice took that familiar harsh tone, the one which tended to shrivel one’s insides. "Fors, you are a Star Man, the Star Captain.  You are also our only diplomat.  No one else but you could undertake this mission.  Your abilities raise the chances for success, they do not diminish them."  He paused.  "Kinsman, you have brought peace to warring parties before, people who were determined to destroy each other."

Fors turned back.  "But that is the crucial word:  People!  I can reason with people.  Hamassa have yet proven that they are even capable of reason."

Jarl shot back, "And yet, a leader of that same race walks among us in perfect safety.  He has seen and accepted hospitality and is willing to face the extremists in his own government, armed with the knowledge that could end centuries of warfare."

Fors was silent for a moment, then said, "You know that this could place me in danger.  I have lain in their bonds before; the scars of that experience I wear still.  I could die a very long, and very painful death." After a long pause, “And I now have a family.”

"Or, you could get through to them.  You could halt the last great war on this planet."  The Guardian raised himself to his full height, his sharp blue eyes lancing into Fors.  "Of all the men, of all the tribes you are the one who always had the vision to see past what we were to what we could become.  This is a crucial turning point for us all, humans and Hamassa.  We cannot afford to ignore this opportunity."  Jarl put his hand on Fors' shoulder.  "Kinsman, will you do it?"

In Fors' fog of confusion and fear, Jarl's words sunk in.  Surprised, he said, "You are not ordering me to go."

A short pause, then, "I am asking."

Jarl's eyes had softened.  In that moment, Fors saw the depth of the Guardian's commitment, and in that realization, Fors' courage asserted itself.  Drawing himself up to full attention, he responded in a firm voice,

"Guardian, I accept this mission."

Jarl held his gaze, but his face softened.  "I know what I am asking of you, of the risk you will face.  But know that in my heart, there is no one I trust more."

 

Fors still could not read Tarkus’ face well, but his eyes were wide with incredulity. “You wish to meet with my leaders?”

Fors nodded. “We feel that, given the friendship we have found with you, that through you, we could extend an offer of peace.”

The Hamassa General looked from face to face, not entirely sure of what he was hearing. “I must tell you that I was not looking forward to delivering this message myself. You must realize that if you show yourselves before the Hamassa leaders that they are likely to hold you for capture, if not kill you outright.”

Jarl said, “But Fors will be with you. Surely you have enough influence to provide a space for talks.”

I am a soldier. I am no politician. My influence is therefore limited. There are those who would be quick to accuse you of brain-washing me, and others who would think I was fomenting a revolution.” He paused. “And you know as well as I that there are those in almost every tribe who profit from war. Their message of fear and hate is a powerful one, and they do have influence.” He shook his head slowly. “No, my friends. I think for a human to walk into the Hamassa stronghold would be folly of the worst kind. You must give me space to speak with them. When they are ready…if they can become ready…then you may accompany me.”

There was another long silence.

Fors spoke, “Autumn is here. Winter is coming and our available time is short.” He looked at Tarkus. “I could travel with you part-way; make camp and wait for you to come get me. That way, we would not lose momentum to the unnecessary passage of time.”

Jarl’s head came up, staring at Fors with those piercing eyes. Tarkus was looking at Fors as well, but his was a look of calculation and reassessment. “You realize that you are gambling for an uncertain peace with your life.” He paused. “Is this something you would be willing to die for?”

Fors met that look with one of his own. His reply was short, but charged with commitment:

“Yes.”

Tarkus rose, his voice decisive. “Then we march at sunrise.”

It was, as Fors discovered, one thing to accept a dangerous mission from one’s leader. However, it was quite another to break that news to family. The room was quiet, save for the crackling wood from the fireplace. Wenna faced him, her auburn hair framing a face gone ghostly pale. She was trying desperately to keep her emotions under control, and failing. Kreston, upon hearing the news, had shot to his feet, his entire being radiating concern, anger, and fear.

“Somehow, I – I knew this would happen.” Wenna’s voice quavered. “And that only you could be tasked with such a mission.” She reached out and gripped Fors’ arm tightly. “But this is completely different. This time, there is no uncertainty of the danger. You could be hurt.” Her voice sank to a whisper. “You…you could…die, horribly.”

Fors laid his hand gently over hers. “No one is more clearly aware of that than I. But, we have been attacked, and yes we won the battle. This time. We must do whatever we can to ensure that such a thing never happens here again.”

Kreston spoke harshly, “I lost a father once. Am I now to lose another?”

Fors replied, firmly but kindly. “It is the same risk any wearer of the Star faces. It is the same risk you vowed to take upon yourself in becoming a novice. Do not forget that I lost my father as well.” Kreston looked down, acknowledging the point.

“Then take me with you. Allow me to stand beside you, to protect you.”

Fors shook his head slowly. “You have proven yourself in battle, and your courage is without question. But this task requires that which you do not yet possess. And that is wisdom.” Fors sighed. “These will be delicate negotiations, times when anger and hate must be met with restraint and patience. Yes, the risks are very high. But the potential reward, if I am fortunate enough to be successful, will be the priceless wealth of peace. For that result, this is worth the risk.”

Kreston suddenly flung himself into Fors arms, clinging with all the strength he had. Wenna rose and joined the embrace. And for a very, very long time, the three held each other.

The next morning dawned grey, cold, and dismal, matching the mood of those who gathered in the Star House. Fors and Tarkus stood together, packed and loaded for their journey. Fors realized, with bemusement, that being the Star Captain, he had no one to whom to give the traditional parting. Instead, he turned and faced Jarl, who was Guardian, but also who would always be Fors’ Captain.

“I am a Star Man. I go forth from the Eyrie into lands unknown, traveling in peace, and seeking knowledge. I vow to never show drawn sword or bow to anyone, save in defense of my life.”

Jarl stood at attention. “Star Man, you travel with the hopes of the people of the Eyrie. May the Star you wear guide your way in safety. Be the voice of our people. And return home safely.”

He gave one last embrace to his son and wife. Wenna whispered, “Remember the last thing he said.”

With that, the two turned and left the stronghold.

Once clear of the mountains, the two traveled side by side, so that any distant observers might see them as companions and not prisoner and guard. While they walked, Fors directed a barrage of questions at the General, hoping to learn crucial things about how the Hamassa was organized and led, and the degree to which the separate bands communicated between the cities. He also tried to learn some of the guttural language of the tribe, but even as gifted a linguist as Fors made slow progress.

Their path led them wide of the riverside villages, wanting to avoid contact. But two days into their journey, they came out of a stand of trees to see a familiar figure perched on a rock.

Fors slowed to a halt. “Arskane.”

The dark-skinned warrior looked at him for a moment. “Where are you bound, Star Man?”

“A mission of peace; to end the bloodshed of this, the last war.”

Arskane rose and picked up a traveling pack. “And you will not go alone.” The tone of his voice brooked no argument.

Fors looked at Tarkus, who looked at Arskane, seemed to shrug, and then continued to walk. He glanced over his shoulder and said, “Well, come on, then.”

For several days, they traveled through the lowlands, shoulder to shoulder. They were an odd party, the silver-haired Star Man, the tall, dark southerner, and the grey, paunchy Hamassa. For Arskane, it was his first opportunity to question the General, and question him he did. They learned much about Hamassa society and culture, and what they would likely face when meeting with the Ruling Council. None of which was truly good news.

Tarkus directed them to one of the Old One’s wide highways, obviously a main route to a large city. They halted for the night, taking shelter in a small forest atop a steep hill. Fors instinctively knew that this place was chosen because it provided cover, gave a clear view of any approach, and was defensible, if it came to that. That night as the embers of the cooking fire died, Tarkus spoke.

“It is here I must leave you. I will go into the city tomorrow, and speak with the Council. If my efforts succeed, I will come back for you. If I fail…” He shrugged fatalistically.

Arskane spoke, “I pray for your success.” His long arm reached over, and after a moment of surprise, Tarkus extended his own. The two clasped hands, looking at each other for a long moment.


 

 

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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.