by Ralph F. Couey


Chapter 10

The sun was gone, its last light fading quickly in the west.  Throughout the Eyrie, the atmosphere was electric.  At the appointed time, the great drums began their slow, rhythmic beat and the people of the Eyrie left their homes and made their way to the Ring of Ceremony, where a great bonfire had been lit.  They gathered around the edge, clans mingled together as one tribe.  The silence was broken only by the crackling of the flames and a few, short, whispered conversations.  Fors stood with the other members of the Star House on the north side of the ring.  Looking to his left, he could see Wenna and Kreston standing together. 

Just the day before, he had watched as Kreston stood before Torin, placing his sword, knife, bows, and arrows -- all made by his own hand according to the Law-- before the Star Captain for final inspection.  Other hopefuls had made similar presentiments as well.  But unlike them, Kreston had stood tall, his carriage fairly glowing with pride and confidence.  Even considering his own prejudice, Fors recognized the boy's impressive accomplishments over the preceding months.  He had steadfastly refused to allow himself to hope, but it was plain to all who had watched the youngster, that the traditions of the Star ran thick in his blood.

Still, the Star Man knew through the bitterness of his own experience that the results of the Night of Choosing were far from a foregone conclusion.  There would be some, Fors grimly acknowledged, whose names would not be called; who would leave this gathering devastated by disappointment.

Fors glanced around.  The Ring of Ceremony was a bowl-shaped geologic anomaly, with steeply-sloped sides that over the decades had been worn into places for people to sit or stand.  It was open on one end, facing the valley that lay at the foot of the sheer drop of the southern escarpment.  It was large enough to hold nearly the whole tribe, making it the perfect place to gather on this night of solemn ceremony.

Presently, the flow of people into the Ring ebbed and stopped.  All who could gather, save those on watch, were present.  An unknown signal was given, and the drummers shifted from the slow, steady beat of The Call to a series of rapid strokes which abruptly stopped.  A small chorus began singing the Eyrie's anthem, "People of the Mountains.  Though he was far from being a singer, the anthem never failed to spark strong emotions in Fors.  In the final chorus, the entire tribe joined in, raising their voices to the stars.

As always, as the song ended, Fors closed his eyes, his delicate ears following the dying echoes as the sound of their voices flowed into the valley below.  Jarl stepped forward, and after a moment of silence, spoke.

"People of the Eyrie, we have gathered this night, as we have gathered on similar nights throughout our history, the Twelve Clans together as one tribe; strong, united, and free.  Two and a half centuries ago, a collection of scientists, engineers, and space-farers numbering less than 100, gathered here, to glean the knowledge required to live on other worlds.  But on a dark day, the world they had known was destroyed.  Their homes, their families, taken from them in a matter of hours.  But despite the fear they must have felt; despite the sadness in their hearts, they chose to survive.  Because of their courage and valor, this Tribe of the Eyrie survived the dark days after the war; and in the decades since, we have grown strong. 

"We are a principled people, guided not by lust for power or blood, not by greed for territory or riches, not by the evil desire to enslave others,  but by the things we hold most sacred:  Knowledge and Wisdom.  And above all, Peace.

"This night, we celebrate our history and heritage.  We salute the courage of our ancestors, and re-commit ourselves to those ideals that have shaped our past and will define our future.  But also, on this night, we act to preserve that future by choosing those who have been tested and found worthy to carry forward the traditions of those groups that work daily to ensure that not only will we survive, but flourish as well.  Join with me in the Oath of Allegiance!"

With a sound like muted thunder, the entire tribe rose to their feet and led by Jarl, began to speak:

"I pledge my allegiance to the Tribe of the Eyrie; to the principals upon which it stands.  Knowledge will I honor; Peace will I offer.  To my Kinsman do I commit my life, my blood, and my sacred honor.  Forever will we stand united in strength, for as long as the mountains stand around us, in liberty, in justice, and in freedom."

Following Jarl's direction, the tribe returned to their seats.  Jarl began to talk about the tribe's current status, detailing the results of the annual tribal accounting that had been done in the spring.  At one point, Jarl's voice rose almost majestically. 

 "Kinsmen, as you know, our tribe began with less than 100.  But as the result of this year's accounting, I am elated to report to you that for the first time in our history, the population of the Eyrie has surpassed 3,000 people!"

After a moment of stunned silence, the circle erupted in a long, sustained cheer.  Jarl, seemed to enjoy the moment, allowing it to go on for several minutes.  When the sound faded, Jarl continued. 

"The growth of the tribe is joyful news.  But let that joy be tempered with the knowledge that now the need for the food, shelter, clothing, and medicines that sustain us is greater than ever before.  We must work ever harder in the short summer months to produce and craft enough to last through the long, unforgiving winter.  It is good to celebrate but let us never waver in our efforts to do that which must be done."

With that, Jarl stepped back and each one of the members of the Tribal Council came forward reporting on those items relevant to their offices.  When Torin's turn came, he spoke about the journeys of the previous year, rejoicing in the fact that for the first time in nearly 12 years, all the Star Men who had been dispatched had returned, safe and sound.  He spoke about the discovery of the medicine cache and what that could mean to the future health of the tribe.  In conclusion, he noted that the number of violent encounters with the Beast Things continued to decline to its lowest level in three decades, postulating the hope that the lowlands were becoming safer for travel.

When the Council reports concluded, Jarl honored members of the tribe for significant accomplishments and contributions.  Among the children, the accomplished scholars were called forward and recognized, as well as teachers who had distinguished themselves.  Jarl then paid tribute to the memory of those who had passed from life in the past year, concluding with a moment of silence.

Then came the moment that all had awaited with great anticipation.  One by one, each member of the Council came forward and handed a scroll to Jarl.  As the Guardian read the names, youngsters came forward, each one bursting with excitement and pride.  The House of Healers chose 16 novices, the Sentry and Defenders named 11, the House of Laws selected 7 extraordinarily bright students.  One by one, they came forward, taking their first steps on the path of their future, their excitement tempered by the very real knowledge that this path would be long and tortuous.  Some, despite their best efforts, would not reach its destination.

Finally, Torin stepped forward, handing his scroll to Jarl.  As he had with the others, he unbound the ribbon and rolled it open.  Fors fervently hoped that Kreston would not have to wait long.  And he didn't.  Jarl cleared his throat and announced the first name of the Star Novices.

"From the Hawk Clan, Kreston!"

The boy with the dignity of a young man, rose and strode across the circle, taking his place before the Guardian.  Fors, his own heart pounding with excitement, looked over to Wenna.  He could see reflected in the firelight her tears of joy.  He himself could feel a lump growing in his throat.  One by one, the other seven selectees came forward and stood shoulder-to-shoulder.  Fors, along with several other Star Men, then stepped forward and placed around the necks of the new novices a star of polished brass and its leather string.  If all went well, about five years hence, they would receive the Silver Star and heavy chain of a Star Man.  Fors hung the star on Kreston's neck, then offered the warrior's clasp and his congratulations.  Kreston looked deep into the eyes of the older man, and then replied softly...

"Thank you...Father."

Two days later, an early morning, Fors, along with Wenna and Kreston, stood in the Star House.  Outside in the pre-dawn gloom lay their packs, loaded with the essentials they would need for their journey.  Across the room, their Defender, Boros of the Badger Clan, waited patiently.  Torin gave Fors his final briefing, also sharing kind words with Wenna.  For Star Novice Kreston, he had stern words, reminding the young man of his inexperience and the danger of pride; ordering him to pay close attention to everything that happened.  "Remember above all that a Star Man represents every man, women, and child of the Eyrie.  Your speech, behavior, and habits must therefore be always beyond reproach for their judgement of you will be also their judgement of this tribe.  Do you understand?"

Kreston replied, "Yes Sir."  The Star Captain looked hard into the Novice's eyes, then turned back to Fors.  "Travel well, Star Man.  May the trail you walk be rich with knowledge and free of danger.  We will await your return with hope."

Fors completed the ritual parting:  "I go forth from the Eyrie in peace, seeking knowledge and offering brotherhood to all whom I meet."

Fors turned and left the Star House, followed by the other three.  Seemingly out of nowhere, Nira appeared, announcing his arrival with a soft meow.  Silently, they donned their packs.  Fors slipped the Star Pouch over his neck and shoulder, and as he had done countless times before, turned away from the Stronghold for the open lands beyond. 

He led them down the trail from the West Ridge, winding around to the base of the Southern Escarpment.  There would be some tough hiking ahead, as they left the mountains.  There was no conversation, since each had been thoroughly briefed on the route and destination.  At one point though, Fors looked back.  Kreston was immediately behind, a sober expression on his face.  Wenna followed her son, her face demonstrating deep thought.  Bringing up the rear, Boros strode easily, his head on a swivel as he scanned the surrounding area.  A man reputed to be courageous, deliberate, and highly intelligent, he was also experienced.  This would be his sixth journey out of the mountains.  Catching Fors' eye, he nodded briefly.  The way was safe.

Thus, the hours passed.  The sun cleared the horizon and began its climb towards zenith.  Towards late morning, they cleared the last of the foothills.  Once in the flat lowlands, Fors increased the pace.  Nira began scouting, gliding left and right of their path.  Fors caught a brief flash of emotion from the big cat.  He too felt the excitement of the journey.

Presently, they arrived at a familiar grove of trees.  Fors called a rest.  The day had not been warm enough to require much drinking water, but from the nearby stream they topped off their canteens, anyway.  Fors sat down beside Kreston, taking a map out of the Star Pouch.  Opening it, he said, "See if you can find our position."

Kreston perused the map, glancing up at his surroundings.  He put a finger on the map and announced, "We are here."

"What direction do we take now?"

Deftly using his fingers as he had been taught, he measured the sun angle, matching it to the chart on the map.  Fors watched as he identified the required three landmarks, then looking around, pointed just north of west.  "We should go this direction until we reach the river on the other side of the Glentown ruins.  Then we follow the river north to the intact bridge."  He looked expectantly at Fors.

Fors nodded.  "What hazards do you see that await us?"

"Spring in the lowlands is a time of sudden and violent storms.  Also, there are remains of farms along our path where wild pigs and cattle abound.  From those herds we can gain food, but the pigs especially are territorial and will attack without warning."

Fors nodded in approval.  "Well done.  I want you to take the lead when we leave here.  Remember to stop for the mid-day meal, and at least one rest break before we camp for the night."

"Yes, Father."  Kreston was trying hard to be nonchalant but was not succeeding.  Fors wasn't worried.  He had made this trek enough times that the route was as familiar as the Eyrie itself.  If Kreston led them astray, he would know instantly.  Returning the map to the Star Pouch, he rose and moved to Wenna and knelt.  "How are you doing?" he asked.

Her smile was genuine, if a bit taut.  "It is surprising how unsettling the loss of familiar surroundings can be."

Fors smiled.  "Try not to think of the familiar you leave behind, but rather the adventure of the unknown that lies ahead."

She looked down.  "I'm sorry.  I should be more...adventurous, I guess."

Fors gently placed his hand on her shoulder.  "I realize this is all new to you.  But know that, over time, even the new can become familiar.  How are your feet?"  Wenna was breaking in a new pair of trail boots, a process that Fors knew from experience could be exquisitely painful.

Her voice became more upbeat.  "Actually, quite good.  The thick socks have helped a lot."

"Good!  He favored her with a warm smile and turned away.  Wenna looked at him with new eyes.  Her husband was in his element.

Fors rose, retrieving the Star Pouch.  The others got up as well, and once again they resumed their march, this time with Kreston in the lead.

It was a pleasant day, and the hours passed comfortably.  Nira came and went, scouting the way ahead.  He, too, knew this path well.  After stopping for the mid-day meal, they continued their way.  Late in the afternoon, they approached the ruins of a small community, a place Fors had long ago identified as Glentown.  Normally, he would have passed around its perimeter, having already explored the place thoroughly.  But for Wenna and Kreston, this was their first exposure to the flotsam of the Old Ones' once mighty civilization.  In deference to them, Fors allowed Kreston to lead them into the town, walking along the broken surface of its main street.  Surreptitiously, the Star Man strung his bow, not wishing to tempt fate. 

They slowed almost to a crawl.  Kreston and Wenna looked with awe at the broken structures, now overgrown with plants and trees.  Turning suddenly, Kreston stopped at the front of what had once been a small store, its glass windows long since broken out.  He peered into the darkness, as if trying to divine secrets that had long since died with the inhabitants.  The Novice moved to the doors and carefully entered.  Fors watched carefully as Kreston's eyes swept the interior.  Inside were orderly rows of shelves that had once held veritable treasures.  Suddenly, Fors heard from the boy a sudden intake of breath.  On a countertop, lying on its side was a human skull.  Fors remained quiet, allowing Kreston to absorb his first real contact with the past.  Wenna moved past them.  Ever the scientist, she donned a pair of gloves from her pack and picked up the skull, examining it carefully. 

Fors moved beside her, curious about her reaction.  After a moment, she muttered, "Slightly smaller than ours."  She turned it over in her hands, peering inside.  "The brain case seems different."  Placing the artifact gently back on the countertop, she concluded, "They were our past, but we are very different people now."

Fors considered her words.  While Star Men had made thousands of journeys through these lowlands, the Eyrie had never thought to send any of its scientists along. 

"We should move on."  Kreston's voice echoed through the store.  Fors turned in his direction.  Kreston's face bore a questioning look.  Fors answered the question.

"You are the leader.  Give the command."

Kreston held his head high, his eyes steady.  In a voice of decision, he announced, "Let's go."

Regaining the street, they continued their march.  They paused at a few other structures, Wenna spending the most time in what must have been a small hospital or clinic.  Inside, she touched, almost reverently pieces of equipment, technology lost to the ages.  In one metal cabinet that hissed when it opened, she discovered stacks of dark-colored stiff squares.  Carefully drawing one out, she held it up to the light.  Her voice full of wonder, she whispered, "It is a picture...of a person's insides!"  She pointed to parts of the faded image for Fors' benefit.  "Ribs, spine, hip bones..."  She returned the film back to its container.  "What healing we could do with devices such as these," she said somberly, shaking her head.  Her eyes met her husband's.  "Why would the Old Ones throw away such miracles as this?"

"That is the answer we seek; it is why we come here."

She looked around the clinic room with all its miracle machines, and murmured, "I think I finally understand."

A few hours later, they reached the bank of the great river.  As planned, they turned north, following the waterway.  They hadn't gone far before discovering a surprise.  One of the great bridges had fallen into the river, spilling the rusted vehicles that had blocked its roadway into the muddy waters.  The ends of the bridge were no longer connected to the roads but were now dug into the dirt banks on either side.  Fors stood, considering their options.  The way was now traversable, the only question was how stable the bridge was.  There was risk, but if they chose to cross here, they could cut hours from their journey.

Boros approached and stood next to Fors, who asked, "What do you think?"

"If it were just you and I, I'd say yes.  But with your wife and son?"  He shook his head.  "To cross that bridge will require a strong heart and a clear head.  I just don't know our companions well enough to judge them.  We could ask if they are willing to take the risk, but are they experienced enough to properly judge that risk?"

Fors nodded.  "Still, the best way to build courage is to face risk."  He turned to Wenna and Kreston.  "We can cross this bridge and reduce our journey by many hours.  However, I cannot say how stable the bridge is.  We could cross successfully, or our weight and movement could cause the bridge to pivot and fall into the river, along with us."

Wenna looked at the bridge, chewing her lip.  Kreston took a few steps away and stood for a few moments, then turned and said, "I think we should cross."

Fors looked at Wenna, who shrugged and nodded.  "This is not my area of expertise.  Here, I must trust the wits of my companions."

With the question decided, under Fors direction, each took from their packs the coil of rope.  In moments, they were all linked together.  Then carefully, they worked their way down the muddy bank.  Fors, now in the lead, reached the edge of the bridge first.  Cautiously, he placed his foot on the steel and transferred his weight.  It seemed solid enough.  Nira moved past Fors cautiously, then flashed across the bridge with her lightning speed.  He moved forward, the rest following his lead.  Fors kept his hand on the side of the bridge, feeling for the first telltale vibrations that would indicate the shifting of the ancient structure.  Slowly they moved forward, testing with each step.  Below, the brown waters ran past, gurgling as they washed over the vehicles in the river.  The good thing was the wrecks had gone into the river upstream from the bridge, forming a sort of barrier which slowed the water slightly.  They were now almost halfway across, and the span seemed solid.  Fors increased the pace, hoping to get them across quicker.  Just past the midpoint, the bridge had bent slightly, putting part of the roadway under the roiling waters.  Fors moved to the higher railing and moved them all past the submerged spot.  With that behind them, they returned to the road surface.  Now, the bridge sloped upwards towards the other side.  Their confidence buoyed by the success so far, they moved quickly.  Fors looked ahead, estimating the distance remaining.  They were almost there.  Then, the thing Fors dreaded the most, began.  He felt a slight vibration in the handrail, and the road surface began to flex slightly.  Instantly, he reacted.  Turning his head, he roared, "RUN!"

Now they were sprinting up the road surface.  The flexing began to get worse, making their footing more difficult.  Nira, safe on the riverbank, yowled his concern.  Finally, Fors gained the mud bank that marked the edge of the bridge.  Quickly behind came Wenna, then Kreston.  But as Boros approached, the bridge gave a massive shudder and began to roll sideways.  Fors dived for Kreston's end of the rope and dug his heels into the shifting surface.  Acting on instinct, the other two took hold and together, they all pulled hard.  The bridge had rolled almost sideways, and then paused.  With the rails and crossbars under his feet, Boros began climbing with a will.  Miraculously, just as his feet left the surface of the bridge, it made one final twist and with a loud roar, collapsed into the river.

Fors grasped the Defender's arm.  "Are you injured?"

With his face, still grim and slightly pale, Boros shook his head, and said, "We need to get up the bank.  The bridge may have been holding the mud in place!"

They turned as one and made a mad scramble up the side, finally reaching the top.  They tumbled over a low stone wall and collapsed on the other side, out of breath.  Wenna was the first to move, going to each to check for injury.  As she came to Fors, she leaned close and grimly whispered, "Next time, we walk around."

Fors nodded.  Miraculously, they had survived without injury.  Even Boros with the wild ride on the collapsing bridge had come through with only minor scratches.

They rested awhile, then stowed the ropes away.  Fors took his map out and began to peruse it.  He would be taking them through unfamiliar country at this point.  He located the spot where they were and carefully plotted the direction they should travel.  Getting everyone up, he led the way as they resumed their march.

Later, as the sun began to approach the horizon, they came upon the ruins of a farm.  The barn was a pile of rotting wood, but the house, made of stone, seemed to be almost intact.  Fors entered the building carefully.  The upper floors were intact, although the stairs had long ago crumbled into dust.  In one large room, there was a fireplace.  The room had an intact ceiling, no windows and had two doorways that could be barricaded and defended.  Wenna and Boros went to work immediately, gathering wood and piling it in the fireplace.  In no time at all, a cheery fire was burning.  As the heat and smoke went up the chimney, they could hear the flutter of birds abandoning their now inhospitable home.  Nira was already on her hunt, so Fors and Kreston gathered their bows and set out to get dinner.  They hadn't gone far before sighting a small herd of deer.  Kreston drew an arrow from his quiver, set it on the bowstring, and let fly.  The arrow flashed through the dusk and found its mark, a large doe.  Fors watched as the youngster gutted and cleaned the animal.  Then, together, they carried the carcass back to the farmhouse.  Upon arrival, all four fell to preparing the meat for cooking.  A short time later, the delicious smell of roasting venison filled the room.  As Fors turned the spit, Boros stood in the doorway, idly looking out across the fields.  Kreston was perusing the map with Wenna looking over his shoulder.  It was a quiet evening, with only the crickets breaking the silence.  Presently, Nira returned.  He looked up at Fors, and in a flash the two shared that unexplainable communication.  The emotion Fors received was eminent satisfaction.  They were safe.  With a heavy sigh, Nira curled up near the door.

After eating, they cleaned up.  What was left of the deer was taken outside and left a good distance from the house.  Then, with everyone inside, they barricaded both doors, using some of the larger pieces of wood from the barn and large stones.  As the fire burned low, their eyes grew heavy and one by one, they drifted off to sleep.  Sometime during the night, a loud animal scream sounded from the darkness, waking Fors.  Listening carefully, he identified the sounds of combat as two unseen predators fought over the remains of the deer.  Nira had sprang from his sleep and was poised before the barricade, his ears at full attention, and his fur standing straight along his back.  Fors moved to the door and peered into the darkness.  His night vision could see details invisible to others, and he was able to identify a small group of coyotes, their dog-like bodies gathered around the deer carcass.  He watched carefully, but they showed no inclination to approach the house.  After a while, the pack moved off, their howls and barks marking their retreat.  Satisfied, he laid back down.  A hand touched his arm.  He turned to see Wenna looking at him questioningly.  He smiled and shook his head.  Within moments, he was asleep.

Sometime later, it began to rain, a slow drizzle.  Dawn came late, as night became a gray, gloomy day.  Wenna and Nira had gone prospecting, returning with a wild hen and a clutch of eggs.  After breakfast, they packed up and left the farm continuing to the north. 

Two days later, they finally reached the outer boundaries of the Plains territory.  They were crossing a small stream when Nira flashed up, his eyes alight with warning.  Waving to the others, they took shelter among some rocks at the stream's bend.  Crouched down, Fors closed his eyes and concentrated.  He heard the thrumming of multiple hoof beats.  Horsemen were approaching.  Silently, he cautioned the others.  Looking carefully, he saw three Plainsmen as they came out of the tree line.  They rode up to the stream bank and stopped.  One carefully scanned the area.  The Plainsmen were skilled trackers, and Fors had not been careful at hiding their trail.  Tense, he continued to watch. 

Spurring his horse, the Plainsmen approached the stream opposite of the place Fors and his party had entered it.  He leaned forward, frowning as he inspected the area.  He seemed to find something that satisfied his curiosity.  Leaning back, he shouted, "Fors of the Tribe of the Eyrie!  Welcome!"

Fors rose from behind the rocks, the others rising as well. He placed his closed fists on his chest, then spreading his arms, he opened his hands in the traditional greeting, which the Plainsmen returned. As they cantered over, Fors said, "Sellen, your trail skills are sharper than ever."

Sellen was tall and broad-shouldered. His hair, worn long as a sign of free birth, was held out of his eyes by a leather band displaying his clan symbol. Leather chaps, worn smooth and shiny by hours of riding, covered his legs down to his boots. He wore a leather vest over a shirt of woven cloth. The others were similarly dressed, including the two dark-skinned southerners. Grinning broadly, he said, "I read trails the way you seem to read the minds of men." Leaning down, he offered his hand to Fors, who clasped it warmly. Turning, Sellen whistled towards the trees. One more Plainsman came forward, leading four riderless horses.

For Fors and Boros who were veterans of the lowlands, horses were familiar. To Wenna and Kreston, they seemed huge and intimidating. Sellen, sensing their discomfort, helped them up and steadied them. Then, swinging effortlessly back on his own mount, he led the procession back towards the trees. They rode through the forest for a time, and then debouched onto a sunlit prairie. On the horizon, Fors could see the smoke from many fires, the sure sign they were approaching a sizeable village. As they came closer, Fors saw sure signs of civilization. Cultivated fields, small herds of grazing horses, all connected by a series of well-worn paths. Men and women were working in the fields, both dark and light-skinned. The tell-tale smell of charcoal told Fors that forges were active.  At other places, women from both tribes were hard at work weaving grass into mats.  In one large tent, many crafters, both men and women were engaged in converting the wool of sheep into threads from which clothing would be made.  In another tent, wood pulp was being crushed, beginning the process of making paper.  The mountaineers crested one last small ridge and the panorama of huts and skin tents was revealed.  It had only been a season since Fors last visit, yet the number of dwellings had grown.  And people.  Everywhere, there were people.  

After a seemingly interminable ride, they arrived at the complex of structures that served as the center of government.  Dismounting, Fors heard a familiar voice call out.  Turning, he greeted Arskane.  

“Brother, I am glad your journey was a safe one.”  

For the rest of that day, Fors met in council with the Plainsmen and Southerners.  With care, they melded their separate ideas into a unified plan.  Fors then watched with interest as Arskane and Sellen supervised the loading of the carts.  There was one more celebratory dinner and then they turned in for the night.  After a restful sleep, the morning’s first light saw the travelers cinching packs and attaching carts to the ponies.  Finally, they were ready to go.  Sellen, as Trail Captain, waved his arm and the group moved out at a brisk pace.  The journey had begun.


 "Star Man's Saga"
Copyright ~ Ralph F. Couey and the Estate of Andre Norton 2017
Online Rights -
Donated by – Ralph F. Couey

Revision: 2 ~ July, 2019

 Formatted by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ Nov. 2017 & Aug. 2019

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.