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 16

 

Tarkus was gone before dawn, and together, Fors and Arskane began their vigil. There was little conversation between them, knowing the risk, and the importance of what they were attempting to accomplish. They cooked their meal before sunset, standing their watch in darkness. Both knew the danger of providing a guiding beacon to an enemy. Fors, with his mutated vision and hearing, stood the night watches while Arskane slept lightly nearby. Not that either one slept well, so heavy was the tension they felt. They were surprisingly left alone and unmolested, given their proximity to the city, but that fact did not diminish their watchfulness to any degree.

On the sixth day, Arskane asked Fors, “Do you think he succeeded?”

Fors shook his head. “There is no way to know for certain. That we haven’t been attacked is, I think, a good sign.”

Arskane’s gaze rested on the distant horizon. “Fighting a battle is never as hard as waiting for the battle to begin.”

It was nearing high sun on the seventh day when Arskane nudged a sleeping Fors awake with the words, “Someone’s coming.”

Fors was awake immediately and turned his eyes towards the direction of Arksane’s long arm. His sharp eyes saw three grey shapes trekking through the long grass approaching their hill. They were some distance away, and approaching openly. Arskane asked, “What do you think?”

“I think we should check the other approaches. We do not want to be surprised.”

“Prudent. Remain here, and I will go look.”

With that, the tall southerner vanished into the woods. Fors continued to monitor the approach of the three unknowns. They were coming directly towards the hill, with no attempt to hide or disguise their intent. That, in itself was probably a good sign, Fors mused. They had covered about half the distance to their hill when Arskane reappeared, as silently as he had left. “I looked carefully in all the other directions. I see no one else.”

Fors nodded. “They are showing faith in their approach. I think we should show faith as well.” With that, he placed his weapons in a previously prepared hidden cache and walked to the crest of the hill where he could clearly be seen, Arskane joining him. Within moments, the approaching trio saw him. Unexpectedly, one of them waved almost nonchalantly. Fors returned the gesture. Soon, almost too soon, the three had climbed the hill and presented themselves. Tarkus was not among them, but Fors and Arskane were quick to note that none of them were carrying weapons.

There was a moment of stilted silence, broken when Arskane inquired, “Where is General Tarkus?”

The one in the middle croaked out a reply. “You come with us.”

Fors and Arskane shared a worried glance, then Fors gestured, “Lead us.”

As they descended the hill together, one took the lead, while the other two took flanking positions on either side, reminding Fors of their first contact with the Lakota. Now, as then, it was difficult to know if they were prisoners, or merely being escorted.

It took a good two hours of steady walking, but eventually they penetrated the moldering buildings of the city’s outskirts. Another hour or so and they were in the silent canyons of the tall towers. Despite the obvious lack of threat posed by their escorts, Fors still felt nervous. Those towers, with the multitude of empty windows provided hundreds of points from which an attack could be launched. Even though embarked on a mission of peace, Fors could not help feel naked without his weapons.

They pushed deeper into the city until they were taken to a set of stairs that disappeared beneath the streets. It was, Fors recognized from long experience, an entrance to an underground transport system.

The escorts led the two visitors down a flight of cracked concrete stairs and then down another curious set of stairs made from some kind of steel. From the platform, they dropped down onto the remains of the steel rails and proceeded up a dark tunnel until they turned suddenly and opened a rusty steel door. Beyond lay more stairs. As they went lower, the air became more rank smelling. They were led through yet one more steel door, and into a large space. The smell hit Fors and Arskane with a power that caused the two to flinch ever so slightly. But not before their eyes revealed that the space was filled with the skulking gray forms of many Hamassa.

The instinct of years brought the two to a dead halt. But surprisingly, none of the assembled Hamassa made a move towards them. In fact, the gazes directed their way were almost ones of studied indifference, as if the appearance of humans here was a common occurrence.

Noticing that his charges were not moving, the leader came back and stood before Fors, looking at his face intently. He seemed to nod, and then croaked out three words:

“Do not worry.”

They moved on through the space, Fors’ apprehensions leaving him with each step. At the other end of the large space, they went through a set of double doors. Inside were more Hamassa, most notable were two standing on either side of another door. They were better dressed than other Hamassa Fors had seen. They both wore a kind of tunic and a metal belt from which hung a cluster of those deadly darts. Looking around, Fors realized he was standing in some kind of ante room. He could see in the activities of those present the familiar kind of bureaucracy that was a part of every government. Suddenly the two sentries stiffened to attention. The single door opened and one of the Hamassa bade the two humans to enter. This room was smaller, and at the far end were crude furnishings which Fors recognized as the ceremonial seats of power. In the most prominent chair was a large Hamassa with the now-familiar high forehead. But it was the eyes that captured the Mountaineer’s attention. They were bright and alive. There was clearly intelligence there. Almost automatically Fors and Arskane placed their hands over their hearts, and then extended their arms wide. Their customary words broke the oppressive silence.

“We come in peace.”

There was no response. The leader continued to look intently at them, as if trying to peer into the minds of the two humans. After several long and uncomfortable moments, he made a minute gesture, and from behind a crude wall, General Tarkus appeared. Fors began to smile.

Until he realized that the General’s hands were bound in manacles.

Throughout his life, there had been occasions when Fors’ situation moved quickly from apparent safety to very real danger. He had learned the hard lesson of maintaining clarity of thought and a firm control on his fear. This had saved his life countless times. But here, deep in the dark belly of the Hamassa stronghold, he realized that if things turned violent, there would be no escape this time. Beside him, Arskane muttered, “So much for a warm welcome.”

After a few moments, the leader reached out a bony leg and kicked Tarkus. Speaking in the Mountaineer’s language, the General said, “While I would not readily use the term “welcome,” nonetheless you have been permitted to be here.”

Fors asked, “Are you now a prisoner of your own people?”

Tarkus sighed. “It is a very long story, but know that things are not as bleak as they may appear.”

The tension in the room was palpable. Fors thought furiously. There had to be a way to defuse the situation and communicate their intent to the enigmatic Hamassa leader. Acting purely on instinct, Fors walked forward slowly until he stood in front of the leader. Slowly, but with unmistakable purpose, he reached out his hand. For a long moment, the two held each other’s gaze. Then the leader uttered a guttural order. Two soldiers moved quickly to grab and hold Fors and Arskane. Then, they were forcefully removed. Neither resisted; to do so would have simply sealed their fate. They were hustled down a long corridor, through another door, and then flung violently into what was clearly a cell. The door slammed shut behind them. As they lay on the filthy floor, Fors said, “I don’t know what Tarkus meant, but this seems pretty ‘bleak’ to me.”

There was no way to accurately measure the passage of time, but it seemed that they remained in the cell for several days. They were fed on occasion, meals that were nearly impossible to stomach. Their guards, seemingly out of a desire to alleviate boredom, paid visits during which the two were beaten severely. Despite his desire to be optimistic, Fors’ feelings sank with the hours. It was quite possible, he realized, that he and Arskane would remain there until they were dead. Neither man feared death, but Fors mourned the loss of this opportunity.

At some point in their imprisonment, the door was suddenly flung open, and the two were removed from the chamber with much the same lack of hospitality as before. They were taken to another room and flung into a couple of chairs. The two guards then departed, and the two explorers were left alone for a time.

Eventually, the door opened and one of the Hamassa leaders entered and sat before them. Without preamble, he began to speak.

“When General Tarkus returned and told of what had happened, he was not believed. Many were of the opinion that he had simply fled the battlefield after having been defeated. That is why he was bound when you arrived. No one among us can imagine that enemies like you would tend to the wounds of one of us, and just allow him to leave.”

Arskane responded, “Yet, here you are. If you truly believed that we were here for warlike purposes, we would still be in our cell, if not already dead.”

The Hamassa nodded. “This is true. In fact, I will tell you that in the past days, scouts have been sent throughout the countryside searching for your invading armies.” He sat back for a moment, then continued. “The land is empty. There are no invaders. Even those who have in the past pillaged our cities are nowhere to be found. Now among the council are those who reluctantly say that perhaps the reason for your arrival is none other than what you and Tarkus say it is; peace.”

Fors said, “We arrived without weapons. While imprisoned, we have been beaten but we did not fight back. I do not know what else we could do to prove the truth of our intentions.”

There followed a long silence. Three sets of eyes looked back at each other, all trying to accomplish the same thing: discover the truth. At one point, Arskane cleared his throat and said, “By the way, my name is Arskane.” He nodded towards his companion. “He is Fors. What are you called?”

The Hamassa tilted his head for a moment, then replied, “Veterik.” Then, leaning forward again, he said, “Tell me about the battle, and what transpired after.”

Fors recounted the events of that day, the alert, the battle, finding Tarkus, and taking him back for treatment of his wounds. He talked about the General’s stay in the Eyrie, how despite years of suspicion and fear, real bridges were built between him and the Mountaineers. He recounted to Veterik the conversations with Jarl, and the General’s decision to return to his people with the Eyrie proposal. Fors went on to talk about how the human tribes, who at one point in time had been at each other’s throats, now had firmly established peaceful relations. He reemphasized that peace was possible if both sides could see the other as something other than adversaries.

Throughout, Veterik listened with an all but unfathomable expression. When Fors finished, there was a long, thoughtful silence. Finally, the Hamassa leader began to speak.

“Your account is essentially the same one related to us by Tarkus, but there are enough differences to keep them from being rehearsed.” Abruptly, he stood. “I must return to the council.” Without another word, he left the room, the door closing with a hollow boom.

Arskane turned to Fors, a questioning look on his bruised and battered face. Fors shrugged painfully. “I don’t know, brother. I just…don’t know.”

They were left alone for some time after that, though not returned to their cell, something in which Fors found some cautious optimism. Guards brought them water and food that seemed to be of a better quality. Finally, the door opened and two guards motioned for the two humans to follow.

They were ushered back into the same room, and were pushed into positions standing before the Hamassa leadership. Fors noted that the way they had been handled was noticeably gentler.

The Chieftain looked at them for a few moments, then spoke. “While there are those among us who suspect deception, I have decided there is enough truth in what you say to warrant investigation.”

Fors replied, “We are grateful for your change of heart.”

The Chieftain held up his clawed hand. “You may yet hold on to your thanks. My decision merely means that we have decided to not kill you immediately.”

“What is there to say or do that could communicate our intentions to you? I understand suspicion and fear, perhaps more than you suspect. But clearly we have a choice before us: To live together in peace, or to go on trying to destroy each other. There is no future in war; the Old Ones proved that. But we can talk. We can trade. We can help each other in ways we do not yet imagine. There is a future, a bright future for us all if we can walk that path together.”

The Chieftain leaned forward, his eyes intense. “Can we be assured that you will speak for all the human tribes?”

Fors nodded. “I have been sent here for that purpose.”

“Can I be assured that the Hamassa may travel through your lands unmolested?”

Arskane spoke for the first time. “You cannot. You spoke of those among you who still harbor anger and suspicion. We are no different. There are many of our clans who still mourn those whose lives have been taken in this…war.”

The Chieftain suddenly rose from his seat and slowly made his way down until he stood before the two humans. The rank, sour smell of his person filled Fors’ nose, but he somehow endured it without flinching. The Chieftain spoke, “We would all have to work to get over our anger. It may be impossible for all of us to lay down our weapons. And it could take years before we could truly come to understand and live alongside each other. Even if we were to make this effort, it is clear that we could still fail. And the killing would continue.”

Fors’ hope sunk into despair. Failure was imminent. Then the Chieftain continued.

“However. Even in the face of conflict, there may be new paths to walk. I agree that there seems little benefit in continuing to make war on each other without at least trying something different.” He paused. “General Tarkus speaks highly of your Chieftain…this one named Jarl. He is clearly one who sees the world in a different, perhaps a better way.” He turned to Arskane. “Dark one, what of your Chieftain? And the leader of the Plainsmen? Can they also see the world in a different way? Or will they also forever view us with hate and meet us with drawn weapons?”

Arskane replied, “It is true that emotion runs hot in my tribe, and the Plains people as well in regards to you Hamassa. But even the most stubborn minds can eventually be changed. It will not be easy, but nothing valuable in life ever is easy.”

The Chieftain turned his back, folding his arms. He seemed to be thinking deeply. The Hamassa were, in Fors’ experience a fairly rowdy tribe. But the room was completely silent. The only thing that could be heard was the steady dripping of water.

Suddenly he turned back to face Fors and Arskane. “Winter is nearly here. It is not a time for travel, rather a time for sitting by warm fires. But in a few months, the sun will rise on a warmer day. I will use that time to prepare my tribes. I suggest you use these months for the same purpose. You may return to your Jarl and tell him that Nakkir, Chieftain of all Hamassa has decided to meet with him. I can guarantee nothing except that I will listen, and that I expect him to listen as well. Perhaps…perhaps we may find common ground.”

With that, Nakkir motioned with his hand, and the two humans were escorted from the stronghold, this time handled with a great deal more respect.

Hours later, after they had retrieved their weapons and started the long trek back to the Eyrie, they began to speak of what had transpired. Fors said, “It is half of a victory. I had hoped for much more.”

Arskane shook his head. “Brother, when one is hungry, half an apple is far better than no apple at all. At least we walked out of there with our lives.” He sniffed his tunic, wrinkling his nose. “And something else besides. I need to bathe.”

A week later, Fors was back in the Eyrie, sitting with Jarl in the Star House. He had briefed the Guardian fully, not holding back anything. His face and body still bore scars and bruises that testified of the brutal treatment he and Arskane had endured. After Fors finished speaking, a long silence filled the small room as Jarl considered what he had heard. Outside, the first of many winter storms was raging, the wind adding a mournful howl to the tense atmosphere.

Finally, he spoke. “What is your sense? Did Nakkir seem sincere?”

“It is difficult to assess, as I am still learning how to read the Hamassa. He may be at least willing to meet and negotiate. I do believe that his stated intent to prepare his tribesmen is genuine.”

Jarl stared out the window at the heavy snow. “Is it your belief that the Hamassa rule by common consent or by decree?”

“Difficult to say for certain. He did admit to the presence of dissension. But there is also a sense that he is a respected Chieftain, and that may be enough to force a consensus, however grudging. I would have preferred to discuss that with Tarkus, but we were not permitted to speak to him again, although he was very much alive when we departed. And without manacles.”

Jarl nodded slowly. “That may be the best sign of all.” He turned to look at Fors. “Have you been home yet?”

Fors shook his head. “I came directly to you upon my return. I suspect my family doesn’t even know I have returned.”

Jarl stood, Fors standing as well. “Go home. I have much to think about.” He turned and placed his hand on Fors’ shoulder. “Kinsman, I have no words to express my appreciation for your courage; your willingness to face considerable danger to undertake this very important mission. You have accomplished something historic, but there will be difficult days ahead when I present the results of this initiative to the Eyrie. I expect a great deal of anger and resistance.”

“Guardian, I will stand with you. Whatever may come, you can count on that.”

Jarl allowed a slight smile. “Fors, I hope you can appreciate the power of your words.” The smile faded. “But this is what a Guardian must do. It is the test of leadership to navigate such stormy times, and it is a burden that I alone must bear.” Jarls clear blue eyes bored into Fors. “Learn from what will happen. It is wisdom that will stand you in good stead in the years to come.”

With that, Jarl left, his Defender following him into the heavy snowfall. Fors stood in the silence, looking about the chamber of the Star Captain. Somehow, it still didn’t feel right to be occupying this position. Shrugging philosophically, he donned his heavy garments and headed down the main path towards home. The winds battered him as he walked, his pace not helped by the many aches and pains that had been gifted to him by his Hamassa hosts. Finally, he found himself at the front door. Hesitating slightly, he turned the handle and entered, quickly closing it behind. From the room behind him, he heard a gasp, then the sound of running feet. Sweeping the hood from his head he beheld Wenna rushing his way. He opened his arms and they embraced. He felt her sobs, as her hands ran over his shoulders and back, as if convincing herself that he was truly home. After a few moments, she looked up into his face and gasped yet again. “They beat you?” Without waiting for the confirming reply, she helped him remove his outer garments, and then led him to the bedroom. Carefully she removed most of his clothes and began to investigate his injuries. Acting quickly, she went to the kitchen and returned with a bowl of hot water, several towels, and a strong smelling liquid. With her sure and deft hands, she began to treat his wounds, her face rotating between joyful relief and harsh anger. While this was going on, the front door opened and closed again. Kreston then rushed into the room and hugged his father tightly.

Wenna, speaking softly but tightly, said, “Kreston, be gentle, your father is hurt.”

Kreston drew back, his face turning to shock as he observed the damage. After a few moments, he reached out and gently touched the bruises on the Star Captain’s face. Managing a shaky smile, he said, “Let me guess: Diplomacy?”

 

 

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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.