About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chapter One

The humid air lay heavy upon the land. The bright sun, sliding towards the horizon through the seemingly interminable mid-afternoon was a fierce white beacon in the hazy summer sky. Animals having sought the shade, the earth lay somnolent, waiting for the cool of evening. Walking with measured stride through a field of wild grain, Fors paced himself, occasionally taking sips from his canteen. Summers in the lowlands were days to be endured and Fors looked forward to the cool air of his mountain home. The good thing, he mused, was that the long days meant he could cover a lot of distance.

A stand of trees at the edge of the field provided a brief respite from the heat of the afternoon. A small stream ran among the trees and Fors decided to take a rest. Examining the water, he saw it ran steady and clear. Tasting it with his fingers, he decided to fill his canteens. As he leaned over to submerge the container, he studied his reflection. His face, beginning to show the lines of age, was weather-beaten and deeply tanned, which emphasized the silvery sheen of his close-cropped hair. His body, also browned by the sun, bore many scars, the remembrances of a life hard-lived. The canteens filled, Fors, after taking a hard look around, removed his heavy boots and with a contented sigh, lowered his feet into the cool water. Leaning back against a tree, Fors emptied his mind and tried to relax. After a few moments, a stray thought of impatience entered his mind, to which he responded with a comforting thought of his own. Shortly afterwards, his hearing, still keen after all these years, detected a familiar careful tread. A plaintive grumbling meow sounded behind him and a moment later the graceful form of the big hunting cat sunk into the grass at Fors’ side.

Nira had become Fors’ companion in the way of his mother, Lura. Lura had been Fors’ companion for over 15 years, accompanying him on his journeys across the wide land. They had shared food in front of countless fires, fought battles against foes, both two and four-legged. They had saved each others’ lives more times that memory could reliably count. But as the years passed, it had been hard for Lura to come to grips with her advancing age, rendering her once-lithe muscles stiff and sore. One day, while Fors labored in the Star House, Lura limped to the doorway, Nira by her side. Together they approached Fors. As they stood in front of the Star Man, Lura gazed intently into Nira’s eyes. After a few moments, Nira walked to Fors’ side and stood as if on watch. Lura’s gaze went to Fors eyes, and like so many times before, he caught a flash of emotion—sadness, and yet satisfaction. Lura then returned to the house they had shared. When Fors and Nira returned hours later, she was deeply asleep. Fors knelt down and gently stroked her still-beautiful coat, to which she responded with a deep purr. Sometime later that night, in the soft glow of mountain starlight, the great cat passed peacefully from life.

Fors was disconsolate. Certainly he was no stranger to death, but the passing of one so close was painful.

Like Lura, Nira’s coat of cream and chocolate was the clear sign of his Siamese ancestor. He had been trained well and over time helped to fill the void left by Lura’s passing.

Presently, Fors removed his feet from the stream and placed them in a patch of sunlight to dry. Trusting Nira, he closed his eyes and took allowed himself to drift off. As he slept, disjointed bits of memory surfaced in short dreams. After a time, Nira impatiently nudged him awake, anxious to be on their way. Fors rubbed the sleep from his eyes, put on his boots, and with a slight groan and the cracking of stiffened muscles, rose to his feet. He stretched briefly, then retrieved the canteens and Star Pouch and resumed his journey. From the angle of the sun, he estimated that about an hour had passed. He wasn’t sure at what point he had needed short naps and the need for them grated on him. You could not stop time; age was inevitable. As one who had spent his life seeking far trails and new horizons, he dreaded the day when the advancing years would no longer permit him to travel. Even now, as he strode steadily and confidently, he tried to ignore the occasional twinges of pain from his knees.

Fors traveled well into the evening, finally stopping when the sun was just disappearing behind the low hills. A bluff rose above another stream and there were places where rock overhangs provided shelter, some deep enough to qualify as small caves. Fors had stopped here many times over the years and as he crossed the stream he felt the comfort of familiar surroundings. He was perhaps half a day’s journey from the Eyrie.

Nira took a quick drink of water from the stream then bounded away to begin her hunt. Stringing his bow, Fors began to explore the areas along the stream. Within a short period of time, his search was rewarded. Several turkeys emerged from some underbrush. Quickly, Fors picked out the largest one and let fly a steel-tipped arrow. His aim was true and in short order he was on his way back. Stopping some distance away, he butchered the bird, leaving the remains where they could be easily found by night-roving carnivores. He jogged back to his campsite, lit a small fire, and roasted the meat. Some time later, he relaxed in his cave watching the fire die to embers. As he drifted off to sleep, again he was visited by his memories. Nira slept nearby, her senses sharply alert.

Chapter Two

The noise of morning birds roused him to wakefulness. He got up, stretching carefully, as his muscles had tightened up during his slumbers. Breakfast was leftover turkey for Fors and two rabbits for Nira. He removed his clothing and plunged into a small pool of water downstream from his cave. Emerging a few minutes later, he shook himself off and dried with his blanket. Shortly afterwards, the two left the quiet glade and struck due south.

By mid-morning, he was already scaling foothills, the mountains visible in the distance. By late morning he had reached the foot of one of the many trails that led directly to the Eyrie. To a stranger, the trails were invisible, but to an experienced traveler like Fors, the way up was as plainly visible as if it had been lined with torches. As he climbed, he began to pass the places he knew were under observation by the outpost sentries. He was careful not to look for them, as they were careful not to reveal their locations. This was for the safety of the Eyrie, in case a returning Star Man had been trailed by an enemy.

The sun had reached its zenith when Fors crested the north ridge, the stony natural fortification that marked the outer boundary of the Eyrie settlement. Picking his way down the winding trail into the small, nearly hidden valley, he began to smell wood smoke and hear the sound of his people. With a smile touching his lips, he emerged from the rocks into a large circular basin, rimmed by small buildings. On the south rim of the circle was the House of Elders. Flanking either side were buildings given over to the multitudinous official tasks of government. Storehouses, holding foodstuffs of various kinds, the House of Healers, and the Sentry and Defenders House completed the loop. But standing alone at the north end was the long low building that was in many ways the spiritual center of the Eyrie: The Star House. Fors turned in that direction, returning the greetings of others on his way. It was heart-warming, Fors realized, to receive those cheerful greetings. In his youth, before the tribe was led to an awakening by Jarl, a Star Captain, he had been outcast, ignored, and even feared. He shook his head in wonder. How things had changed!

He entered the Star House, pulling aside the heavy wooden door engraved with a star. Closing it behind him, he turned to his right, heading for another door even more ornately decorated. Raising his hand, he knocked. A muffled voice from inside granted him entry. He opened this door and stepped into a small chamber with a roughly made table, the walls lined with symbols and treasures, memorials to decades of exploration and courage. An older man rose from behind the table in greeting. Fors drew himself to attention and repeated the ancient words:

“I, Fors of the Puma Clan; a Star Man of the Eyrie report my return. I have traveled over far lands in peace; showing not my sword or bow, save in defense of my life. Knowledge have I sought; and knowledge have I found; knowledge do I now lay before you, for the life of the Eyrie is knowledge. To the Eyrie have I brought life.”

Torin, the Star Captain, replied, “To the sanctuary of the Eyrie do I salute the return of a Star Man. I stand ready to receive the gift of the knowledge you have carried. The hearts of all the people of the Eyrie rejoice! For you have come home alive.”

In keeping with tradition, Torin summoned a Star novice, who took Fors’ weapons. Star Men, although highly skilled in the arts of combat, were primarily explorers, not warriors, and as a symbol of the commitment to knowledge, surrendered their weapons upon return to the Eyrie. Thus relieved, the two men grasped hands warmly.

Torin wore a look of relief on his sharply featured face. He said, “You have been gone a long time. We were beginning to worry that misfortune had befallen you.”

Fors replied, “It was a ceremony that lasted many days. As it turned out, not only was there a marriage between a Plainsman and a woman from the Southerners, there was also a ceremony where the two clans were merged into one. Before they were merely allies; now, they are brothers.”

Torin nodded. “How has the Southerners settlement grown?”

“There are now 7 separate villages along the river valley. There is a lively trade between them and the Plainsmen. Jarl was right. They are well on their way to becoming one nation.” Fors sighed. “It is good to see peace.”

Torin rose and came from behind the rough table and placed a hand on Fors’ shoulder. “They have you to thank, my friend.” The Star Captain gestured toward his door. “Come, it is time for the mid-day meal.”

The two walked to a large common area dominated by a very long, wooden table surrounded by large chairs. It was here that those of the Star House took their meals, met in council, or worked in small groups. At the moment, there were 31 Star Men on roster, most of who were out on the trails. Those who remained were instructors, each assigned to a novice and three others who were recovering from wounds. They all gathered around one end of the massive table and the food was set before them by the novices. As they ate, Torin plied Fors with many questions about the events he had witnessed. The others listened closely.

Fors’ position in the Star House was unique. While other wore stars of five points, Fors’ star consisted of many points. He had been set aside by Jarl those many years ago in recognition of his unique talents at diplomacy, “binding together in peace swords that otherwise might be raised in war.” Over the years, the many clans of the Plainsmen and Southerners in the lowlands had learned to trust Fors’ counsel and insight. In the lowlands, he was known as a peace maker and a peace keeper and it was widely recognized that it was through his efforts that humanity had a real chance at unity, after generations of conflict.

Yet, despite his talents, Fors was still an explorer at heart, more at home on the trails than within the Eyrie. He had grown up a loner, and still remained one; living a life somewhat detached from the others. Yet, he was honored by the tribe and deeply respected in the Star House. He was free to roam and explore within the bounds of his duties. It had been a deeply satisfying life.

Later, after the meal had been cleared away and the group had scattered to their diverse responsibilities, Fors labored at his report. Referring frequently to the notes and entries in his Journal, Fors painstakingly recorded the details of his journey. He also updated the maps held by the Star House, carefully noting the locations of the new villages along the river valley, as well as additional information gleaned from the Plainsmen, who were now getting information about the lands to the far northwest.

According to the Plainsmen, the people who occupied those lands were divided into tribes. They wore the skins of animals and claimed that the entire continent had been theirs in the far distant past, a history that pre-dated even the Old Ones. They possessed horses in great numbers and were nomadic in nature, much like the Plainsmen. Relations between the two were cordial, a relationship the Plainsmen’s Recorder of Deeds felt had potential. He had suggested to Fors that his unique talents could be of use in this case and had invited the Star Man to accompany them on their next journey. The mission intrigued Fors, but gazing at the map he realized that it would be a journey of several months duration, since the land controlled by those tribes lay over a thousand miles to the west. It was already mid-summer, and even on horseback such a journey could not possibly be accomplished before the snows fell and closed the trails. Perhaps next spring, Fors mused. A cooperative venture from all three tribes, extending brotherhood and diplomacy would continue the task of re-uniting humanity and rebuilding a nation.

Several hours later, Fors delivered his completed report to Torin, who received the sheaves of paper with enthusiasm. Fors prepared to return to his house, but was told by the Star Captain that the Eyrie Guardian himself had asked to be briefed over supper. Although not unheard of, it was unusual for a returning Star Man to break bread with the leader of his tribe. Fors, still wearing travel clothes caked with the dust and sweat of his journey, returned to his house to prepare.

Chapter Three

The afternoon was settling into evening as Fors strode through the Eyrie stronghold. Below the Main Circle, the log-and-stone structures that sheltered the people of the Eyrie lined trails that snaked out among the rocks off the main path. Each trail led to circles around which were gathered the 12 clans of the Eyrie. About a half mile from the Main Circle, Fors turned to his right, entering a trail between two massive boulders. Upon each boulder was etched the stylized Puma for which his clan was named. It was the smallest of the 12 clans, to which the small number of dwellings along the trail attested. At the far end of the trail, perhaps 75 yards was the isolated house that belonged to Fors. The door stood ajar, having been opened by Nira. Locks were not used by the tribe, since thievery was virtually unknown among the Eyrie. Closing the door, he stood for a few moments in the deepening gloom. He had occasionally been a guest at the homes of other Star Men, as well as gatherings of his Puma Clan and been touched by the light, bustle, and love that had defined the word “home” for them. Although this had been Fors’ house, he had to acknowledge that his real “home” was out on the trails. He was an only child who had never known his mother and whose father had died a violent death when he was still young. The suspicion and fear with which he had been regarded as a youth forced him to learn the hard lessons of self-reliance, enforced by isolation. The man he had become, while alone much of the time, was rarely lonely, satisfied by the companionship of Lura, and now Nira.

The thought of the big hunting cat brought him out of the shadows. Nira walked around Fors, rubbing and nudging his beautiful coat along Fors’ legs. Fors shook himself, gave Nira a brief scratch behind the ears and began to prepare himself. He removed his filthy travel clothes and bathed, showering himself from the storage tank behind the house. In the winter, he kept a constant fire burning under the tank which kept the water from freezing and heated it enough to be comfortable. He dried himself and donned fresh clothing. Soon after, he left and returned to the Star House. Torin was waiting and the two walked across the compound to the largest home in the Eyrie. As he walked, Fors considered the history of this remarkable tribe.

The Eyrie people were not conquerors; they were seekers of knowledge. Their ancestors were scientists, engineers, technicians, and space-faring people who had carried the lofty title of “astronaut.” They had been sent into the harsh environment of the mountains to conduct research that would have eventually led to the creation of habitats on other planets. However, the political affairs of the many governments had turned critical, and in a spasm of mindless self-immolation, the Old Ones destroyed their cities and very nearly the human race itself. The mission of science that had sent Fors’ ancestors into the mountains became an actual exercise in survival.

Fearful of possible contamination, the Eyrie people stayed in the mountains, out of the lowlands. In those early years, even their enforced exile couldn’t completely prevent the taint of radiation from affecting newborn children. In the attempt to keep the strain of humanity free of the mutation effects of the atom, the tribe had taken drastic steps. The grim history from that period never failed to send chills down the spines of those who read it. Finally, after a half-century of isolation, the Mountaineers began to explore the land below, trying to glean the secrets of history from the detritus of a once vast civilization.

Fors’ father had been a Star Man, one of the Eyrie’s courageous explorers. While on one of those explorations, Langdon had met and fallen for a beautiful young woman of the Plains tribe. Returning to the Eyrie, he had defiantly announced his intention to wed. The Star Men and the Council Elders were adamant in their refusal, in the face of which Langdon declared his intention to leave the Eyrie and become a Plainsman. Finally, faced with the impending defection of one of their honored explorers, the Council grudgingly allowed Langdon to wed, on the grounds that the Plainswoman could never set foot within the Eyrie stronghold.

So for several years, Langdon lived a double life. He would spend most of his time with the Plainsmen among the clan of his wife. He returned to the Eyrie for short periods, long enough to make his reports, then leave again. In the second year of that bond, Fors had been born. A year later, a wave of sickness swept through that band of Plainsmen. Langdon’s wife fell ill and died. In the storm of recriminations among the clans as to who or what had been responsible for the disease, Langdon was forced to take his infant son and flee back to the mountains. As a Star Man, he was readily accepted back among the tribe. However, his son would discover that the warm welcome accorded his father did not extend to him.

Langdon became aware that his young son possessed extraordinary hearing and night vision, the positive side of being a mutant. However, he cautioned the youngster to keep hidden these traits. But as he grew, the hair on Fors head continued to grow, not dark or even blond, but damning silver. It was a flag of mutation, the thing most feared by the people of the Eyrie. Other parents refused to allow their children to play with him, although their youngsters took every opportunity to heap abuse on him. Even the other members of the Puma Clan treated the young boy with barely concealed distaste.

Langdon did all he could to strengthen his son. Every evening, the two of them would close the door on the rest of the tribe and spend hours together, in which the Star Man imparted wisdom and training. Langdon was not only the boy’s father; he was his mentor, friend, and hero. Then came that dark day when Jarl came to tell the young Fors that his father was dead. Langdon had been overdue and another Star Man had been sent out to retrace his trail. Langdon’s body had been discovered, sprawled in the ruins of a city, pincushioned by Beast Thing darts. He hadn’t gone quietly, as the other Star Man reported that no less than 12 of the rat-like creatures lay dead around his last stronghold.

Fors was devastated. Langdon had not only been his father, but had also served as the buffer between his son and a hostile tribe. Without his presence, Fors was well and truly alone in his world. By tribal law, care of the young boy passed to the closest relative, Langdon’s sister. Fors’ new family fed, clothed, and sheltered him, but did little else. The focus of his life became to follow his father’s footsteps; to wear The Star.

By the time he was 15, Fors possessed the skills and knowledge required to be Star Novice. In his 16th year, the earliest allowed by tribal law, Fors had gone to the Great Council Fire fully prepared. When the Time of Choosing came and went, Fors found himself ignored. Disappointed, he nonetheless redoubled his efforts and prepared himself even harder. Four more years passed; four more council fires, from which Fors walked away with crushing disappointment. After the fifth year, facing a life of working in the hydroponic caves or the mines, he left the Eyrie. But not before violating the sanctity of the Star House and taking his father’s Star Pouch. He walked out of the mountains, abandoning the tribe that, he felt, had abandoned him.

Over the next few weeks, Fors experienced a lifetime’s worth of adventures. He had rescued and befriended Arskane, the big Southerner. Making a pact of brotherhood, the two explored cities along the shore of the Great Lake, crossed the barren scar of the blow-up lands, and fought the Beast Things. In those battles, Fors discovered a mutation among the rat-like creatures that posed a serious threat to all humans. He had been captured and made part of the fortifications when the Southerners and Plainsmen attacked. That band of Beast Things was eventually destroyed, but in the aftermath, the two human tribes, giving rein to their worst fears and prejudices, very nearly went to war among themselves. Wounded, bleeding, and half-sick, Fors walked into the space between the tribes and with the strength of a few well-chosen words, brought peace to that field; a peace that still survived to this day.

Jarl, the Star Captain, breaking with tradition, had come into the lowlands seeking the wayward tribesman. After the battle, the two traveled back to the Eyrie, sharing many deep conversations along the way. Upon their return to the Eyrie, Fors faced judgment for violating the Star House, as well as defying the will of the Tribe. At that Council Fire, Fors fully expected to be excommunicated from the Eyrie. In fact, he had looked forward to it. In Arskane’s clan he had found the love of family and in the acceptance of the Plains Tribal Elders, he had found acceptance and honor. The Eyrie had, to that point, given him neither. But in an act of vision and leadership, Jarl broke with tradition and shared the secrets of the Star House. He brought to the assembled tribe the realities of their lives and how their prejudices had caused division within the Tribe. The Chief Healer reluctantly agreed with Jarl, indicating that with the natural course of evolution, they could all be considered mutations of the Old Ones.

In what would always be remembered as the watershed moment in Eyrie history, the tribe put the past behind them and looked to a bright future. And as a symbol of that future, Jarl inducted Fors into the Star House.

The Eyrie Guardian functioned solely as a political leader instead of a war chieftain. He led with knowledge and wisdom, not with a sword. His home was large, not because of his exalted position, but because his functions as Guardian required the extra room. The Eyrie was rigidly democratic in that respect. Life in the mountains, particularly in winter, was equally hard on all. And since all shared that burden equally, so did they all share in the rewards. The Eyrie did possess a strong group of Defenders led by their Commander, but decades had passed since it had been necessary to call them out to defend the stronghold. In recent years, the Council, recognizing the restiveness of the warriors, had suggested that they accompany the Star Men on their journeys. There was resistance at first, since Star Men were by their very nature strongly independent. But Jarl insisted, pointing out that the now-common roving bands of Beast Things had made solitary travel much more hazardous. Mainly because of Jarl’s force of will, the experiment proved a success. As a result, fewer Star Men died on the trail. And the relationship between the Warriors and the Star Men, which had been tense and uneasy at times, improved dramatically.

The sun had slipped behind Bald Knob, darkening the Eyrie. Looking down the main trail, Fors and Torin could see windows beginning to glow with lamplight. It was a scene of beauty and warmth; it was “home.”

As the two Star Men approached the heavy door of the Guardian’s house, it swung ponderously open and the two were bade entry by the sentry. They were shown into a large room furnished by chairs and benches. The lamps were lit and there was a small fire burning in the fireplace. Fors sniffed appreciatively at the rich smells of a well-prepared meal that filled the room. After weeks on the trail eating fresh-killed game over a campfire, a good home-cooked meal was a precious event.

At the far end of the room, another set of wooden doors opened and the Guardian’s wife, Chera, entered. Very much the lady of this house and the first lady of the Eyrie, she possessed a charm, grace, and dignity that warmed the hearts of all who had visited this house. She was a supremely intelligent and insightful person, a fitting partner to the man who guided the Eyrie.

“Star Captain Torin, welcome to our home.” She smiled warmly and grasped the offered hand. She then turned to Fors. “And welcome home to you Fors.” Following protocol, Fors, possessing no rank, bowed respectfully. “I am honored to enjoy the hospitality of the First Lady of the Eyrie.”

Gesturing towards a member of the house staff, the two Star Men were soon holding goblets filled with the deep red wine made from mountain berries. The three made conversation for a few minutes until the door at the end of the room opened again. On instinct, the conversation ceased and all three rose and turned toward the man who now entered the room. Once again, Fors felt a curious pride. In his travels, he had seen tribal leaders dressed in highly ceremonial garments, usually robes, and adorned with feathers, jewelry, and elaborate headdresses. In contrast, the man walking towards them was plainly dressed. The heavily nailed boots, leather trousers, leather vest covering a cloth jerkin laced to the neck were little different than what was worn by other men of the Eyrie. The sole expression of office was a silver headband upon which was engraved a grouping of stars, each decorated with a vivid gemstone. At his throat was a small chain holding a five-pointed star, a symbol of what he had once been. The two Star Men saluted and Torin spoke, “To the house of the Eyrie Guardian we have come bearing knowledge of far lands.”

Jarl was older now, his hair gone completely white. His muscles, once taut and smooth, had taken on the knotty appearance of age. But despite the advance of years, his eyes glowed sharp with intelligence and his carriage commanded respect. This was a man born to lead others. Jarl had been a very highly regarded Star Captain. When Horsford, the previous guardian, was killed suddenly by a lightning strike during a violent storm, the Tribe reached out to Jarl as a leader who had proven his sound vision during his time as a Star Man. Some of the Elders were reluctant to endorse the selection, citing the historic separation of fighters from leaders. But the will of the people prevailed and Jarl had proven himself a wise and pragmatic leader, taking the Eyrie down a road that had largely ended the tribe’s self-imposed isolation. For almost 20 years, the former Star Captain had occupied the office of Guardian. There were many who worried that the years would finally take Jarl, leaving the tribe without the strongest leader it had ever had.

Jarl gestured towards the chairs and the three sat down. Chera absented herself, seeing to dinner preparations.

The three talked amiably for a while, catching Fors up on events that had taken place during his absence. Despite the setting, Fors found it difficult to relax. Jarl’s powerful aura of authority and dignity filled the room and Fors unconsciously kept moving to the edge of his chair. His listened closely to the conversation between Jarl and Torin, past and current Star Captains, as they discussed the challenges of leading the elite. He was fascinated as familiar events were retold from the unfamiliar point of view of leaders. Fors felt extremely fortunate to be present. There was wisdom to be learned from such talk.

Chera entered the room and invited them to join her at the table. The three followed Chera through the narrow archway into a large dining room. The table, large enough to hold the entire Tribal Council, was set only for four. Sitting down, the food was brought forth. On the trail, a typical meal for Fors had been fresh-killed game, gutted, skinned and cooked over an open fire. Along with the meat, came tough gristle and bone. It had been nourishment, little more. Arrayed on the platter before him was a fully cooked and delightfully seasoned pig from the Eyrie’s livestock. Accompanying the meat was an array of vegetables from the bounty of the cave-sheltered hydroponic farms. There was even a small bowl of fresh greens, something Chera referred to as a “salad.” Fors found it necessary to pull up all his discipline while eating, remembering where he was and who he was with. So deep was he in the appreciation of the food that he failed utterly to notice when the other conversation died. Suddenly becoming aware of the silence, Fors looked up, startled. The other three were watching him. Jarl, predictably, was expressionless, but both Torin and Chera were wearing expressions of barely repressed mirth. Torin spoke, “Long trail, Fors?”

Fors blushed and put his fork and knife down, unsure what to say. Having spent most of his life on the trails, his table manners were way past rusty. Saving the moment, Chera leaned over and placing her arm gently on his arm smiled and said, “It honors me to see you enjoy this meal.”

Torin laughed and even Jarl cracked a small smile.

After the meal, the four returned to the Great Room. Jarl began to ask Fors about his journey. He seemed particularly interested as Fors related how the two tribes were evolving into a single system of government. To his growing surprise, Fors found the Guardian was not only interested in the relation of facts, but Fors’ opinions on those growing political issues and how they could be resolved.

The hour had grown late when Jarl rose and thanked the two Star Men for coming. Respects were paid to the First Lady and the two men headed for the door.
Torin then bade good night and headed up the path towards the Star House, Chera returning to the house. After a moment of silence, Jarl spoke, “Walk with me, Fors.”

Chapter Four

Night had taken the Eyrie. Above, the sky glowed with the light of thousands of stars, giving a silvery luminescence to the land below. Jarl looked up and remarked, “I take time, now and then, to study the stars. It reminds me of the destiny that was thrown away by the old ones; the destiny that we must always keep in front of us. I did this when I was a new Star Man, years ago, and I urged my fellow wearers of the Star to do that as well.” He paused, and then continued. “Times change; people are born, live a full live, and then die. And yet, whenever we look up at night, we see a sky that never seems to change. There is comfort, I think, in seeing permanence in the heavens when swimming in a sea of change here on Earth.”

The two began to walk slowly down the trail. Behind them, the watchful sentry followed at a discreet distance. The wind soughed through the pine trees while crickets sang their songs among the rocks. Fors glanced at the Guardian, seeing Jarl apparently deep in thought. After a moment, the former Star Captain spoke.

“Becoming a Star Man was the greatest honor I have ever experienced. To have earned the right to wear the star and the Tribe’s trust to take to the trails is a weighty thing. I can still remember with great clarity the adventure of that first exploration. The trails I traveled; the cities I explored, the knowledge I gained and recorded. I remember the first fight; facing a pack of wolves with only sword and bow, and how triumphant that first victory felt. Especially do I remember the day I returned and reported to my Star Captain.

“I made many journeys out of these mountains, but few stand out as clearly as that first one. Over the years, I managed to gain knowledge and wisdom, sometimes painfully. Each lesson I applied to my tasks, making subsequent efforts less problematic.”

Fors listened closely. He had never heard Jarl speak this personally, this frankly.

“I loved those years. I desired no other life than that of an explorer. I truly felt that I would have been happier to expend my life on the trail, rather than spend my last days confined to the Eyrie. But that moment came when I was told that my time of exploration had ended; that I must now become a teacher. It was a sad day, although I knew for some time that such a day would arrive.

“Despite my initial selfishness, I found a measure of satisfaction in teaching novices. I realized that wisdom and knowledge are useless unless they are shared and passed along. All of my novices earned the Star; of that accomplishment I take a measure of pride, and a deep satisfaction that I gave back to the Star House, and the Eyrie a measure of what I had been given.

“Then came the day when my Star Captain, a man named Retrik, informed me that I would be his replacement. Despite the honor, I felt disappointment. I was happy doing what I was doing. I had no ambitions for office or honors. But Retrik, seeing my…discomfort, told me that men who chose not to grow beyond themselves, were as good as dead to their tribe. He said that the Star House needed me, and therefore the Eyrie needed me and I must lay aside my selfish whims and do that which must be done.

“Being a Star Captain is a difficult challenge. You must know the strengths and weaknesses of every Star Man, so that you can match a man’s skills with the mission at hand. You find out that some must be led, and some must be pushed; and some must be leashed. And when a Star Man failed to return to the Eyrie, I, alone, bore the burden of knowing that I sent him to his death.”

He slowed to a stop, and then turned his steady gaze on Fors. “That night those many years ago when you defied tradition and left the Eyrie to set out on your own, I understood your anger. There were many Star Men who angrily wished to hunt you down and return you to this place bound and gagged to face judgment. But I knew that although your mind was angry, your heart was clear. The fact that you took Langdon’s pouch, but left his Star was all the proof I needed. Therefore, against tradition and the wishes of the Star House, I chose to go alone into the lowlands once more, but not to bring you back under arrest. I wanted to find you and make sure you understood the consequences of the choice you had made. As you discovered, renegades are not treated well among the other tribes. After all, no one abandons his tribe without dark cause.”

He began to walk again, then continued.

“I had been unsettled for some time about the Eyrie’s treatment of those who were demonstrably different. I must tell you that on that those nights at the council fire on those nights of choosing, I had great hopes that you would finally be chosen and follow in Langdon’s footsteps. It was, in fact, my recommendation to the Council. I can tell you now that you were one of the most highly qualified young men I had ever seen. But the prejudices and narrow view of those in the Star House, and the deep reluctance of the members of the Tribal Council rendered my wishes moot. I discovered that even as the Star Captain, there were limits to my authority. There is no more implacable foe than fear.

“When we returned after the battle against the Beast Things I had in my heart the certainty that we could no longer afford such attitudes. I made the decision to open the books of tradition so that all would understand what we gave up, and more importantly, what we could have again. So, when the call came from the Tribe for me to assume the office of Guardian, I saw it as my chance to lead the people of the Eyrie away from isolationism and the narrow path of prejudice and mistrust.”

Jarl hesitated. “Kinsman, I had hoped that over these many years that you would raise up another to follow in your footsteps. But you have not even taken a wife.” He sighed. “And the days are passing. I find it distasteful to involve myself in the personal affairs of others, but in your case I felt, it was necessary to speak of this.”

He stopped, turned and looked straight into Fors’ eyes for a long moment. He hesitated again, and Fors could see that Jarl was clearly bracing himself.

“Fors, after your journey next summer to the Northwest, It is my order that you remain within the Eyrie. You should involve yourself in the affairs of this tribe, and learn the many details of how it functions and the things that have to happen in order for us to survive.” To Fors’ surprise, Jarl placed a hand on the Star Man’s shoulder. “It is time for you to set aside the past and prepare for the future.”

Fors was swept by a maelstrom of emotion. His strong disappointment at being taken off the trails was overwhelmed by the power of Jarl’s last words. Reading the shock and confusion in his face, Jarl smiled slightly. “Think on this in the coming days. If you desire additional guidance my door will be open to you.” He paused, “Rest well, Kinsman. It has been an eventful day.”

With that, the Guardian turned and walked back up the path towards his home. The sentry emerged from the shadows and after a long look at Fors, followed silently.

Fors stood stock-still, trying to sort his thoughts out of a flood of emotion. Yes, he was being taken off the trail, but not until he made one last journey. He recalled the words that Jarl had spoken of his life. The Eyrie was a relatively small tribe, so secrets were rare. But Jarl had revealed a side of him and his life that had been deeply personal in nature, probably shared only with his wife. And to what future did he refer? Fors’ future? The future of the Star House? Of the Eyrie itself? He shook his head, realizing that sleep would not come easily this night, despite his fatigue. Instead of taking the path to his house, Fors instead headed for the steep trail that led to the Eastern Promontory.

As a youth, he had gone there many times, seeking solitude; pushed there by isolation and mistrust. The climb was steep and narrow, but eventually Fors emerged upon the surface of a large, flat boulder. From here, he could see across the broad valley that defined the perimeter of the Eyrie Stronghold. His enhanced night vision could clearly pick out the details of rocks, trees, and the succession of mountain peaks beyond, all lined up like the waves of a granite ocean. He sat down, fearlessly dangling his long legs over the edge of the rock and the sheer drop to the valley floor below.

Fors sat there for a long time, carefully sorting out his thoughts. His life was indeed about to change, but it was frustrating to know that and not know exactly what the change would be. At some point, the full moon rose above the mountain peaks, bathing the valley in a bright silvery glow. The effect was breath-taking and Fors relaxed and took in the view.

As one of mixed blood and a mutant to boot, Fors had long ago rejected the idea of courtship. The Eyrie women, strongly pragmatic, had been simply dismissive of Fors’ clumsy approaches. But, he had to admit, in the last few years, their attitudes had softened somewhat. Perhaps it was time to…what was Arskane’s phrase?...”test the waters.” He was unaccountably shy around women, a habit of protecting himself learned in his youth. There was at the moment a larger number of women than men in the tribe, Fors mused. Perhaps there was one who would welcome his attentions.

Suddenly, his senses went on the alert. His sensitive hearing had detected the scrape of claws on rock behind and above him. Instantly, he rolled to his feet, his hand going instinctively to his belt only to remember he was unarmed. He looked up and stared into the face of a mountain lion, one of Nira’s wild cousins. Seeing that his prey was alerted, the big cat roared, hoping to freeze Fors in fear. But the Star Man’s instincts took over and as the animal leapt, Fors darted towards the rock, causing the cat to overshoot. He then turned and faced the animal. His mouth was dry and his heart raced, but his mind stayed clear. The cat slinked left and right, looking for an opening, Fors mirroring the movements. He was careful to keep the rock wall behind him and himself away from the drop-off. In the moonlight he considered his attacker. Although large, the animal did not appear to be full grown. Its coat was clean and unmarked by scars. A young cat, inexperienced in the hunt and attack. Fors felt a ray of hope. If he was smart, he could survive. He saw the cat stop and gather itself. Seeing that, he braced himself for the attack. The cat jumped on Fors, its jaws of long white teeth reaching for his throat. But Fors had been ready. Both hands were now grasping large amounts of skin around the front of the cat’s neck. As he strained to keep the cat’s jaws away from his neck, he twisted the fur savagely, restricting the flow of air. He was rewarded by the sound of rasping. The cat responded with claws, inflicting deep cuts on the Star Man’s shoulders and back. Despite the searing pain, Fors hung on, knowing he was in an all-too-familiar fight for his life. He twisted his hands even further and the big cat’s eyes began to widen. He could feel the animal weakening, but his own strength was fading as well. It would be a race to see who could last the longest.

Without warning, another feline snarl issued behind Fors and out of the corner of his eye, Fors saw a flash of cream and chocolate on legs of steel springs. Nira’s charge knocked the mountain lion off of Fors ripped and bleeding body. Still week from lack of oxygen, the animal struggled to get to its feet, giving Nira the opening he needed. Another leap, a vicious bite to the throat, and the tawny-colored body laid still, its life-blood pooling upon the rock. Nira spat at the dying mountain lion and immediately went to Fors side. Standing there, the big cat tilted his head back and screamed loud and long. Within moments, there came the sound of many feet running up the narrow path from the Eyrie. In the last moments before losing consciousness, Fors saw the figures of Eyrie defenders bending over him.

Chapter Five

At first Fors could see nothing, only darkness. Then, he began to hear muffled voices which gradually became clearer. With a great effort, he forced his eyes open. He tried to voice a question, but could only produce a shallow croak. At that sound, a blurry shape detached itself from the background and came close. “Lie still.” Fors obeyed the voice. A hand hovered over his face and he felt cool drops in his eyes. Blinking rapidly, he vision became much clearer. He felt an arm beneath his shoulders, which lifted him gently to receive a cup at his lips. He sipped the cool water, then took a larger swallow. “That’s enough for now. Let’s see how your stomach takes it.”

Fors could see clearly enough to identify one of the healers, a woman named Wenna standing beside his bed. He turned his head experimentally and his eyes caught sight of the bandages swathing his body. He was feeling pain from his shoulders, back and legs, but at the moment anyway, it was manageable. He tried to ask a question, but the healer shushed him and said, “You were attacked by a mountain lion. Between you and your cat, your attacker was killed. You were severely wounded by the lion’s claws, but we managed to stop the bleeding and infection. You have been asleep for almost 4 days, but it appears that you will survive.”

The healer turned away momentarily. “Please tell the Star Captain that Fors is awake.” Out of the shadows, Fors saw another Star Man rise from a chair and leave the room with alacrity.

Fors indicated the bandages and croaked, “How bad?”

Wenna smiled slightly, “Not as bad as it could have been. You have long arms and that kept the lion from getting a firm grip on you. Some of the cuts were pretty deep, but we were able to sew them shut. Also, you were very weak from blood loss. But the Old One’s knowledge of blood transfusion that you brought back some years ago enabled us to replace most of your losses. So, in a way, you saved your own life.”

Fors vaguely remembered finding the remains of a medical college, from which he had discovered almost intact a treasure trove of books that had been preserved in an airtight container in an underground storage room. Beset almost immediately by Beast Things, he had been forced to fight his way out of the building, but not without removing some well-chosen volumes which survived the trip back to the Eyrie. There had been great excitement among the Healers when Fors returned. And for the first time, that community began to regard him with affection and respect instead of a science experiment gone wrong.

Fors nodded and tried to relax. He was still very tired and weak. Wenna brought another cup to his mouth. “Drink,” she ordered. Whatever it was had a slightly bitter aftertaste, but in the next few moments, Fors felt his pain ebb and fade. With that distraction eliminated, he fell back to sleep almost immediately.

The next two days were marked by a few fog-bound times of wakefulness interspaced by many hours of sleep. On the third day, with the assistance of Wenna and one of her novices, Fors sat upright dangling his long legs off the side of the bed. He was swept by a wave of dizziness, but was kept upright in their firm grasp. Two days after that, he was helped to his feet and managed to shuffle the length of the treatment chamber without falling over. He could feel his strength returning, walking further and firmer with every effort.

Since he was currently the only patient of the Healers, he was able to spend a great deal of time talking to Wenna. Always shy with women, he found in talking to her a sense of comfort and acceptance that truly touched his heart.

She was of the Badger Clan and had been noticed early as a child with exceptional intelligence. In her youth, she had gravitated to the study of healing and in her 15th year had been selected as a Healer Novice. A few years later, she wed another Star Man, Stephen of the Hawk Clan. They had a child, a boy, and were living happily until Stephen met the tragic fate of too many Star Men, a fatal encounter with the Beast Things. That had been 10 years ago. She had thrown herself into her profession, doing research and experiments, working hard to expand the knowledge of disease and treatments. She had never wed again, choosing to raise her young son by herself.

Wenna possessed an inner strength and independence that Fors admired and also the will to go her own way despite the views of others, an attitude Fors intimately understood. He began to look forward to the times when her duties permitted her to spend time with him. Over time, Fors noted that her clipped official tone of voice had softened. Her eyes became less clinical, more interested. She encouraged Fors to speak of his past. When the old, bad memories resurfaced and his tone turned harsh and angry, she patiently listened. At one point, he spoke of his father’s death and the devastation and loneliness that had overwhelmed him. To his surprise, tears came to his eyes and in her gentle presence he wept, truly mourning the loss for the first time in his life.

Finally after 8 long days and nights, Wenna released her patient, with the caution that he rest at least two more days. Fors still wore bandages over the deeper gashes, but his skin was healing rapidly without infection. He would wear the scars of his encounter for the rest of his life. Wenna walked him to the door, her hand softly and gently grasping his arm. They paused at the doorway, Fors blinking away the bright sunlight. He turned to Wenna and said, “I thank you for your care. The Eyrie is fortunate to have someone as skilled as you.

Wenna smiled, somewhat sardonically at his formal tone. “It is always an honor to treat a Star Man.”

Fors looked down at his feet, trying to marshal his thoughts. The strength of his emotions and the scrambling effect they seem to be having on his mind surprised him. He looked up shyly. “I have never enjoyed recovering from injury. But I have enjoyed the many talks we had.” He paused. He was nervous. And sweating. “I, uh, hope we can have them again some time.”

She cocked her head and there was a glint of interest in her eyes, almost if she was seeing Fors for the first time. “I enjoyed them as well. And you don’t have to be injured or sick to visit this House.”

Fors hesitated, then nodded and smiled, then turned and walked out into the sunlight. His pace was slow, but steady. At one point he glanced back, seeing Wenna still standing in the doorway, her arms crossed. He raised his hand in a farewell gesture, which she returned with a brief smile.

While the House of Healers was in the Main Circle, the hospital was actually further down the main path, located centrally to the Clan Circles. Fors walked back to his house, but upon arriving felt restless. Knowing that he would find no rest there, he changed his clothes, then left and began to work his way up the Main Path to the Star House. After 8 days of lying in a bed, he was weak. But he was feeling better than he had since the attack. He walked carefully, measuring his fatigue and wind. As he made his way up, he was greeted by many members of the tribe as they went about their business. At one point, he passed the schoolhouse as the children were lining up to return to class after morning recreation. Seeing the battered Star Man, the children went silent, regarding Fors with wide eyes. Embarrassed, he raised his eyes toward them and smiled slightly. Their teacher, sensing his discomfort speedily herded them back inside, favoring Fors with an apologetic look.

It was a long hike, but eventually the Star House beckoned and with a tired sigh, Fors entered and sank gratefully onto one of the chairs at the big table. He sat there for several moments, fighting the dizziness from his exertion. He had certainly walked too far, but here he had tasks to occupy his mind, and if he didn’t want to make the long walk back, he could avail himself of one of the duty bunks.

He gestured at one of the Novices, asking for a stylus and ink and a blank logbook. Within moments, the requested items were laid before him. He had intended for some time to write down his thoughts on the methods of diplomacy, thinking that this was a subject that wasn’t touched on among the volumes that made up the Star House library. After thinking for a few moments, he picked up the stylus, dipped it in the inkwell and started to write. He was thus engaged several hours later when the Star Men gathered for the mid-day meal. Fors was mildly surprised; he had been unaware of the passage of time, so absorbed was he in his task. After the meal, he returned to the logbooks, continuing to work until the afternoon sun began to dip behind the mountain peaks to the southwest. He sat back with a sigh. Looking at the table, he saw four full logbooks and noted that he was substantially through the fifth one. The Novice returned, took the completed books to the library, and returned the writing materials to the proper cabinet.
Fors slowly rose from his chair, feeling a sudden wave of nausea wash through him. He looked up to see Torin regarding him. “How do you feel?”
Fors shook his head. “Still weak.”
Torin summoned one of the novices. “Prepare a duty bunk for Fors.” The novice left the room. At that moment, there was a knock at the door. One of the other novices opened it and there in the doorway stood the healer, Wenna.
“The Healer Wenna asks entry to the Star House.” The novice glanced back at Torin who replied, “Your entry is granted. Welcome to the Star House.”
Wenna strode confidently through the doorway. She walked right up to Fors and with a set jaw and flashing eyes that brooked no argument, said, “You were supposed to be resting today.”
Fors, discomfited, glanced at Torin, who raised his hands, almost in self-defense. Wenna continued. “You cannot heal if you will not rest. No man is invincible, even a Star Man, although it seems I must continually remind the members of this house of that fact. Go to bed. Stay there for at least two more days. Then we can start making you stronger.”
Fors hesitated. Wenna’s eyebrows went up. “Fors, do not force me to impose my authority upon you.”
Slightly shocked, Fors nodded numbly and turned towards the bunkroom. Healers, alone possessed the authority to order anyone off duty, even the imposing office of Guardian. Suddenly, the room spun. Wenna leapt forward, catching the Star Man with a surprisingly strong grip. An instant later, she was joined by Torin and two other Star Men. Together, they helped him to the bunkroom. His boots and vest were removed and he was carefully laid down. She knelt down and as she adjusted the blanket, her face softened and for a brief moment, the coldly clinical look in her eyes was replaced by something warmer, more personal. Her voice softened, “I will return to check on you.” She hesitated. Fors could see that she was fighting against an unidentifiable impulse. She rose quickly and left. Torin’s eyes followed her exit, and then turned back to Fors, his face wearing a puzzled expression. One of the other Star Men, Meniston of the Bear Clan, leaned forward. “Fors, do you require anything from your home?”
Fors fought his fading consciousness for an answer. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement and turned to see Nira glide in. The big cat surveyed the situation and promptly curled up on the mat in front of the bunk. Fors reached out and stroked his fur. Looking up, he replied, “I have all I need for now.”

With that, Torin shooed everyone out of the bunk room. Fors closed his eyes and slept.

Chapter Six

It was a long, slow process returning to wakefulness. When he could finally pry his eyes open, he looked towards the window, which had been propped open. The sky was darkening and he could see the first glimmerings of stars. He was still disoriented, having lost completely his sense of time. He made a move to get up, but his body was still weak, his muscles very stiff. The movement brought the duty Star Novice to his bunk, carrying a cup of water. Fors drank greedily, his mouth feeling extremely dry. He drank two more cupfuls, finally slaking his thirst. He thanked the youngster and laid his head back down. Despite his weakness, Fors felt restless. It was not in his nature to be a lay about and he felt vaguely guilty about not being up and active. Still, there was a sense of peace within him and when he closed his eyes, he could almost feel his body responding to the enforced rest, healing.

He was lying thus, not really thinking about anything, when his nostrils flickered. An aroma, deliciously pleasing wafted through the bunkroom. He heard quick footsteps and Wenna entered his field of view, carrying a small iron pot. She pulled up a chair and sat. She removed the pot’s lid and Fors saw steam drifting up. The smell was very strong now and the Star Man’s mouth began to water. The Healer produced a bowl and filled it from the pot. Setting the bowl on the small table next to the bunk, she leaned over, put her arms around his shoulders and helped him to a sitting position. During this, her face was very close to Fors’ and he could feel her warmth on his skin. He looked into her green eyes and smiled. Surprisingly, she blushed and returned a quick, embarrassed smile of her own. She quickly turned away and pulled the table up closer. She dipped a spoonful of the stew and offered it, accompanying the action with an order: “Eat.”

Fors did. The stew was marvelous, warm and gently seasoned and it felt very good in his stomach. He ate silently until the bowl was empty. Her eyebrows went up, inquisitively. “More?” Fors nodded. After the second bowl, Fors leaned back against the wall with a contented sigh. Wenna returned the bowl to her bag and replaced the lid on the pot. He drank the water she had brought, and for the first time in several days, felt comfortably alive.
He turned to her and said, “It was not necessary for you to do this. I could have eaten from the larder of the Star House.”
She shook her head. “I have seen what you Star Men call food. It might be a fine meal on the trail, but I would not trust the welfare of my patient to such rations.” She sat back in her chair. “You’ve been asleep for two days. How do you feel?”

Fors replied, “Much better. The meal was a blessing.” He looked at her. “I was not aware that Healers made house calls.”
She cocked her head slightly. “Well, you were too big to carry.” They both chuckled.
Fors became serious. “You have been very kind to me. Your presence brings me peace. Thank you.”
She held his gaze for a few moments, her features softening. Then she smiled. It was a different kind of smile this time; one that made her face radiant and beautiful. In that moment, Fors felt a flood of emotion, unlike anything he had experienced before. Impulsively he reached out and gently grasped her hand. An electric shock seemed to travel up his arm and straight into his heart. She was looking down at their entwined fingers. Then slowly she placed her other hand on top. Silently, they sat like that for a long time in the gathering gloom.

Overnight, clouds moved in and a slow, steady rain began to fall. The breeze, now coming from the north, was distinctly chilly, making the blanket feel good. The sun rose, but the clouds kept the day grey and gloomy. Fors remained in the bunk, drifting in and out of sleep, entranced by the hypnotic sound of the rain. Nira, except for brief hunting expeditions, remained on watch, occasionally favoring Fors with the lick of his rough tongue. In the late afternoon, the rain ebbed and stopped and the clouds began to part. The sun, setting unseen to the west, reflected its light on the clouds Fors could see to the north, painting them with a beautiful golden glow. The scene was beautiful and brought a slight smile to Fors.

A short time later, Fors heard those familiar quick steps approaching. He turned his head, anticipating her arrival. She slowed as she approached, and Fors could see an anxious look in her eyes. He smiled broadly, looking into those green eyes. At his welcoming look, she seemed to relax. She leaned over, reaching out to touch his cheek. His hand, rough and gnarled, covered hers, so soft and smooth.

“How are you feeling?”
Fors sighed. “Very well. I feel much stronger today.”
She nodded. “Good. Do you feel like taking a short walk?”
In silent assent, Fors sat up, swinging his long legs onto the floor. He reached for his boots, but she beat him to it. She slid his feet into the heavy footgear, tightening the lashings. Turning, she summoned the Duty Star Novice and together, they helped Fors to his feet. They stood for a few moments and Fors was surprised to feel none of the dizziness that had assailed him before. Nodding his thanks to the Novice, Fors began to walk slowly, accepting Wenna’s supporting arm. They left the bunk room and walked down the dark hallway and into the main room. It was empty, Fors thankfully noted, although he could hear faint sounds from the galley, where the Novices were preparing the evening meal. Seeing the main door and the light from outside, Fors walked a little faster, only to be restrained by Wenna. “Not so fast,” she cautioned.
Fors reigned in his impatience and soon enough, they exited the Star House. He breathed deeply the air, freshened by the rain and heavy with the scent of the pine trees. Slowly they walked around the Main Circle. At one point, the buildings parted and Fors could see the glorious sight of the sun setting, flaming the sky with vivid colors.

“My old friend,” Fors murmured. Wenna looked at him curiously. He smiled. “I always felt that the sunset was my companion. It didn’t matter how far I roamed, or how alien the land through which I traveled. The sunset would always find me, always bringing with it a sense of peace and beauty. At that moment, even the difficult days were made easier.”

She smiled, understanding. “How appropriate that a wearer of the Star would find comfort in the star closest to home,” she said.
Fors raised his head, looking at her curiously. He had never thought of it in quite that way.

They came to the pathway that led to the West Ridge. He turned and the two of them walked up path. It was not as severe a climb as the path going to the North Ridge or the East Promontory, but to someone who had spent much of the previous three weeks in bed, it was climb enough. Eventually, they arrived at another promontory, this one giving a clear view to the valley and the foothills to the west and the great river valley that lay beyond. Here, the horizon was uncluttered by tree or building. The two stood together watching as the sun slowly sank into the dusk of evening. Fors turned to face Wenna, taking her gently in his arms. Her face, gently colored by the rays of the dying sun was radiantly beautiful beyond words. As Fors pulled her closer, he could feel her trembling. Entranced, he gently stroked the softness of her hair. Her eyes closed, then slowly, Fors lowered his head and kissed Wenna. For a long moment, time came to a halt. The cool evening air, the sounds of the soft breeze through the trees went away and all Fors knew was the softness of her lips and the warmth of her embrace. His head came up slightly and his eyes opened. He was surprised to see that her eyes were full of tears. That radiant smile was back and the sight of it warmed him all the way through.

His heart was full, but he could find no words to express himself. He kissed her again, feeling her arms wrap around his neck. Time went away again as Fors felt himself immersed in the most joy he had ever felt.

After a time, they joined hands and continued their walk along the ridge, her head resting against his shoulder. The sun had gone, but the glow in the sky betrayed its presence just below the horizon. She indicated two small boulders and suggested they sit for awhile. Fors looked at her, unable to stop smiling. “You look beautiful in the sunset.”
She gazed back, gently laughing. She gently stroked his scarred arms, turning serious. “Fors, it is time for me to share some things with you. When my husband was killed, the pain of his loss was almost too much to bear. I promised myself that I would lock up my heart and never again allow myself to feel love. In the past days, however, despite my best efforts, you have opened that lock and entered my heart.”
Fors said, “I have never married, nor have I ever allowed myself to feel love. As one of mixed blood and a mutant, I somehow knew that I would never know that joy. But now, when I also look to my heart, there do I find you.”
She again favored him with a smile, and then turned serious. “I have a son, Kreston. I do not know how he will react to…another man in his mother’s life.”

He nodded in agreement. “We must take this slow, for his sake. Speak to him, tell him what is in your heart. He loves you; he will want you to be happy, although I expect the coming days to be difficult ones for him.”

The sun was completely gone now, the sky glow fading. She helped him to his feet and together they made their way along the trail back to the Eyrie. They had a small disagreement on who should see who home, but in the end, Fors prevailed. Wenna still lived with the Hawk Clan. Their circle was actually the closest one to the Puma circle. They walked slowly, alternately talking rapidly, then moments of quiet, both feeling the joy of simply being together. Even taking their time, all too soon, they found themselves at her door. They stood together, holding hands and gazing at each other, neither one wanting the evening to end. The issue was forced when the door creaked open. Fors and Wenna turned to see young Kreston looking at them with an expression of great surprise.
Seeming slightly embarrassed, Wenna said, “Kreston, this is Fors of the Puma Clan. He has been…a patient of mine.”
Fors had years of experience in negotiation and diplomacy, but never had he felt such raw power as was in the young man’s coldly appraising look. Fors understood that he was being measured. Instinctively, he treated Kreston with the same dignity he would have used on a full-grown man, knowing that this youth had been the man of this house. Extending his hand, he said, “Kreston, I am honored to make your acquaintance.”
The young man looked at the proffered hand for a long moment, then looking hard into Fors’ eyes, reached out his own hand and the two shook. “You are a Star Man. My father was a Star Man, also.”
Fors nodded. “I knew Stephen. He was a very courageous man, and you are every inch his son.”
Kreston nodded slightly, still holding Fors in his gaze. Wenna broke the uncomfortable moment, saying, “Fors, thank you for seeing me home. I expect to see you tomorrow afternoon to change your bandages.” She was speaking in her Healer’s voice and Fors understood that it was for Kreston’s benefit.
“Thank you, Healer. Good night.” A flicker of approval flashed across her face and without further word, he nodded at Kreston, then turned and headed back towards the Puma circle. He heard the door close behind him. His sensitive hearing detected no overt sounds. If they were having a conversation, at least it was a quiet one.
Leaving the Hawk circle, Fors was joined by Nira who fell in beside Fors as they made their way home. Fors smiled to himself, recalling Kreston’s reaction. For many years, he had been the “man” in his mother’s life. Now that status was being challenged. He would react as any man would, instinctively wanting to defend his family and his household. But over time, Fors felt confident that he could win him over. Time was on his side and one thing Star Men had to have in abundance was the virtue of patience.
Entering his home, he lit the lamp and was surprised to see something new on his floor. Someone had skinned and tanned the hide from the mountain lion and laid it on his floor. Fors looked closer, interested. Whoever had done it had made a good job of it. Removing his boots, he stepped on the furred hide, enjoying the soft feel on his feet. Pleased, he went to his bedroom, undressed and lay down. He looked up at the ceiling, smiling in the darkness. He was happier now than he had been in many years. In that cocoon of joy, he slipped into his slumbers.

Chapter Seven

Dawn found him up and around. He recovered some dried fruit from his storage cache, enjoying the sweet taste. He quickly dressed and left his house, Nira padding along in his wake. At the Puma trail head, he turned south on the Main Path. Feeling rested and pain-free, he walked freely. Most of the Eyrie still slept, although occasionally he could see a line of smoke from a cooking fire emerging from a chimney. The early morning light laid long shadows across his path. The air had a very slight chill to it, clear sign that the short mountain summer was waning. He passed the last of the Clan Circles and followed the path as it climbed towards a complex of caves. Uncounted centuries ago, these caves had formed the pathway for what had been an underground river. Now, they housed the most valuable asset the Eyrie possessed.
The hydroponic gardens had been established when the Eyrie’s ancestors first came into the mountains. It was one of the few remaining technologies that had survived over the years. Fed by springs that were the vestiges of the ancient river, the gardens ensured a steady supply of produce and vegetables, even through the coldest winter. Over time, the tribe’s agronomists had been able to produce a wide range of edible plants. Even fruit trees, peaches, pears, and apples had been produced. The farm was located in the deepest, most defensible part of the Eyrie Stronghold, for obvious reasons. If anything happened to the cave farms, the Eyrie would starve.

As Fors approached the first of the caves, two Defenders appeared from behind some rocks. Recognizing Fors, they relaxed and nodded. Fors entered the cave and walked back several yards and encountered one of the Eyrie’s Agronomists. Looking up in surprise, she said, “A Star Man! To what do we owe the honor?”

Fors smiled. “I am Fors of the Puma Clan.”

She extended her hand. “I am Tamara of the Orion Clan.” They shook hands.

Fors said, “I realize that you are very busy, but it has been many years since I learned how these gardens work, and I would like to…re-learn.”

“Your timing is fortunate. As it happens, I have just been relieved off watch.” She led him deeper into the cave. “We have developed what we call a top-feed drip system. There is a two-inch layer of a clay-like material, called perlite. It serves as the growing media for the plants.” She pointed at the far end, where the long rack and table was raised slightly. “Nutrient is dripped in at one end and gravity-fed to a drain at the other end, which directs it back to the tank for recirculation. The power for the pumps is provided by direct feed from windmills on top of the caves. These caves maintain an even temperature, so there’s never a danger from frost or freeze, no matter how cold the winter.”

“What about light?”

Tamara smiled. “That is the ingenious part.” She pointed at some low towers near the cave entrance. Fors could see that several more of the towers were spaced evenly along the length of the cave. “Watch and learn.”

Looking back out of the cave, Fors could see the sun beginning to crest the mountain peaks to the east. Within a few moments, the sun’s rays flooded into the cave entrance. With blinding suddenness, the cave was filled with light. Blinking rapidly, Fors felt himself pulled to the side. He heard Tamara’s voice, somewhat embarrassed, say, “I am sorry, I should have seen where you were standing. Can you see?”

Fors’ vision cleared rapidly. Looking carefully, he saw the genius. On each tower was mounted a large reflective shield, highly polished. The sun’s rays were caught and reflected on to the mirror on the next tower. The system carried the light, mirror to mirror, all the way to the end of the cave, providing more than ample light for the plants.

Tamara continued, “We have to continually adjust the lead mirror in order to make sure that we get the full benefit of the light. But the location of the caves was fortuitous, because no matter what time of year, no matter what the sun’s angle is, we are able to stream light into the caves. Also, the mirrors transmit heat, which helps warm the caves. While the plants do moderately well in the cave’s natural temperature, the added warmth increases the plant’s yields.”

Fors walked close to the racks. “What about this clay material?”

Tamara nodded. “Just as we need oxygen to live, plants need nitrogen. The roots of many plants are able to form intimate relationships with particular fungi living in the soil. These are a symbiosis – a partnership of benefit to both partners. The fungi are very efficient at absorbing nutrients, especially phosphate, from the soil. This is exchanged with the plant in return for plant sugars that are absorbed and used by the fungus. In addition, the roots of legume plants form an unusual and highly specialized symbiosis with other bacteria. This symbiosis enables the bacteria to take nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and convert it into nitrate and ammonia, which are absorbed and used by the plant. The plants are effectively able to make their own fertilizer as a result of this partnership. In return the bacteria are able to absorb and use sugars produced by the plant. The whole thing works like a big circle. All we have to do is make sure the water flows and the mirrors are properly aimed. The result is a bounty of food to feed our tribe.”

Fors marveled. It was a miraculous system complex, yet simple. He had never really sought knowledge on the cave farms, preferring to study the lessons of the open trail. But he could see now that wresting sustenance from this system was, in its own way, every bit of an adventure as exploring a ruined city. Tamara walked over to another set of racks where some small trees were growing. She briefly searched among the branches, then smiled and handed Fors a fresh peach. Fors hesitated, then took a bite. The fresh sweetness filled his mouth and his eyes went wide in surprise and pleasure. Tamara’s smile broadened. “I hope you are enjoying the peach.”

Fors nodded. “It’s perfect! Thank you!”

“We have worked very hard to improve each generation of plants, but there is still much that we do not know. I am aware of the protocols of the Star House, but we need books on plant genetics. Is there any way you could help us out?”

Fors took another bite and held up the peach. “So, this is a kind of bribe?”

Tamara smiled again. “We really need those books.”

Fors took another bite, then said, “I will speak with Torin. I am sure something can be worked out. Of course, you will have to train the Star Men so they will know what to look for.”

Tamara nodded. “It will be my pleasure to do so.” She extended her hand. “Thank you, Fors!”

He took the last bite out of the peach and handed her the core. “Your thanks are not required.” He pointed at the peach core. “It was a very effective bribe.”

Chapter Eight

Torin sighed and thought for a moment. “I think the best time to do this teaching will be when the last of the Star House returns from the trails. Varin of the Timber Wolf clan will return two weeks before the autumnal equinox, barring any problems.” He looked up, curious. “What moved you to visit the caves?”
Fors shrugged. “Curiosity. As a Star Man I know much more about the world outside the Eyrie than I do the inside. I thought it would be…useful knowledge.”
Torin eyed him expectantly. “And…?”
Fors sighed. “Jarl has instructed me to educate myself on the inner workings of the tribe. For what purpose I do not know.”
The room was silent. Torin gazed at the wall, his lips pursed and very deep in thought. After a time, he asked, “What else did Jarl share with you?
Fors retold the conversation with Jarl. As he spoke, the Star Captain continued to stare at the wall, nodding from time to time. Completing his recollection, Fors asked, “Has Jarl discussed any of this with you?”
Focus returned to Torin’s eyes and his gaze returned to Fors. “The Guardian and I had a long discussion in the days prior to your return. To me has he also given…instructions. I cannot share with you all he told me as he has taken me into his confidence.” Noting Fors’ look of frustration, he leaned forward and continued. “Fors, you will be called upon to make some momentous decisions in the months ahead, decisions that carry with them the future of the Eyrie. As daunting as this must sound to you, know that others have come to trust your wisdom and your courage. You must trust them as well.” He hesitated. “I can say no more of this…for now.”

• * * * * *

Several days later, Fors was busily engaged training novices in the art of sword fighting. The current collection of novices were typical, some gifted, some not, some eager, some stubborn. The training was hard work, but Fors was enjoying himself immensely all the same. The problem with school, he mused, was finding usefulness in the subjects taught. For these novices, their skill with a blade and bow would put meat on their fires and keep them alive in the inevitable combat awaiting them on the trails.

Critically, he observed two of the novices somewhat clumsily sparring with training swords, carrying the same heft as the real thing, but without the razor-sharp edges on the blade and tip. “Demas, you cannot thrust in that manner. If you fail to turn your shoulders, you open up your belly to a counter-thrust. Never give your enemy a wide target.” The youngster nodded and began to apply Fors’ instruction. They sparred for a few moments, then Fors leaped forward, catching Demas’ opponent by surprise. Grasping the boy’s shoulders, Fors easily spun him to the ground, the sword clattering to the ground beside him.
The boy looked up at the Star Man in shocked surprise and quick anger. With the novices attention riveted upon him, Fors delivered the lesson:

“Star Men almost always fight alone. Your enemies almost always do not. If you allow your attention to be buried by the fight, you will never see the killing thrust that enters your back.” He paused for effect. “Always know your surroundings.”

Looking carefully at their faces, he saw comprehension come to their eyes. Lesson embraced.

Fors glanced at the sun briefly and announced, “Please return to the Star House for your mapping class.”

He watched as the youngsters, obviously fatigued, filed out of the meadow. Fors stayed to ensure nothing had been left behind, then followed the students back to the Star House. The sun was just past its zenith but despite the clear sky, the day was noticeably cooler than when he had returned to the Eyrie. He loved the autumn season and his spirit was buoyed by what was certainly a harbinger of that time. As he walked, he remained deep in thought, planning his lesson for the next day. So preoccupied was he that he very nearly walked right past Wenna, who was waiting alongside the path.

Smiling, she remarked, “First you teach them to know their surroundings, then you almost walk right past me, so deep in thought. What if I had been a Beast Thing?”

Fors grinned, embarrassed, then reached out to give her a welcoming embrace, which she returned with warmth. “You are far lovelier than a Beast Thing.”

Her eyebrows raised, “I should hope so.” They walked silently for a time, then she asked, “Fors, can you come to my house for dinner this night?”

Fors looked at her somewhat surprised. “I would enjoy that very much. Is your son ready for this?”

“Funny you should ask. It was his idea. You were right in one sense. Kreston does have concern for his mother’s happiness.” She slowed and put a cautionary hand on his arm. “But know that you will be measured this night. Stephen remains a hero to him and no man, not even another Star Man will ever replace that.”

Once his duties had been discharged, Fors returned to his house and prepared himself. In all his years of diplomacy, he had often had to prepare himself for conferences and ceremonies where even a piece of clothing out of place could cause great offense. But as he dressed, he found himself affected by a strong sense of apprehension. He repeatedly counseled himself that Kreston was only a boy, not a tribal chief or warrior. But even with that attempt at self-assurance, he found himself surprising nervous as he strode down the Main Path to the Hawk Clan circle. In no time at all, he found himself at the front door. Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the door. After a moment, the door opened. Standing before Fors was a young man, perhaps 15 or so. His dark brown hair was close-cropped and topped a face that was square-shaped with a strong chin. He was the living reflection of his father, the same resolute set to the jaw, and eyes glowing with intelligence. He was thin, in the way of adolescents, but Fors could see that the boy’s shoulders were already beginning to broaden. Remembering Kreston’s status in this house, Fors stood straight, almost at attention. “Greetings to you and the members of this house. I have come in response to your gracious and generous invitation.”

The boy’s eyes widened ever so slightly, but he responded in a steady voice according to tradition. “Welcome. To you we extend the warmth of the hearth and the bounty of our table. Enter in peace.”

Fors nodded in response. Once the door was closed, Fors was engulfed with the aromas of good food. Putting that distraction firmly aside, he extended his hand to Kreston, who extended his in turn, after only a small hesitation. Rather than a regular handshake, Fors gripped the young boy with the warrior’s clasp, gripping his forearm just below the elbow. That took him by surprise, Fors noted, but he returned the gesture with just a hint of a pleased smile.

Careful to keep even a hint of condescension from his tone, Fors said, “I am honored to meet the man of this house.”

This time, a genuine smile. “The honor is mine, Star Man.”

Quick, familiar steps, then a woman’s voice: “All right, you two; enough ceremony. This is not the Star House.”

Fors smiled, “Good evening! It is good to see you again.”

She smiled, a sunburst in the gathering dusk. “And you as well.” She motioned with her arm. “Come sit by the fire. I still have a few tasks to finish.”

The furnishings were old, but extremely well-made. Fors remembered Stephen had been a skilled craftsman, a magician with his hands. He picked out a seat, not the biggest or smallest, and sat. Kreston lowered himself to a well-worn spot on the hearth, Fors sensing that it was his favorite spot in that room. After a few awkward moments of silence, Kreston asked, “Are your wounds healing?”

“Yes, thanks in large part to the skills of your mother. The Eyrie is very fortunate to have someone as skilled as she.”

The boy hesitated, then spoke, the words pouring out in a rush. “My father spoke of you. He said that at first, he did not like you. But as time went on, he said he gained great respect for you. He called you, “a Star Man of great vision.”

Fors bowed his head slightly. “Stephen was a good man, a skilled and wise explorer. I always valued his insight; and his friendship.”

Silence ensued as the two regarded each other. After a moment, Fors asked, “What is your desire for the future?”

Kreston’s head came up, his eyes glowing with pride. “Like you, I am a Star Man’s son. I wish to follow my father’s legacy.”

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chapter 9

Autumn had come to the mountains. All around the Eyrie, leaves had turned to brilliant reds and golds. The days were noticeably cooler and the nights now were distinctly chilly. The tribe's rovers began returning, bearing their hard-won bits of knowledge. Fors was kept busy, debriefing them and helping to write reports and update maps. The stronghold was humming with activity. The last of the open field harvests were brought in and every day parties were sent out to cut wood. Surprisingly, a seam of coal had been discovered some 10 miles away and a major effort was underway to mine as much as that precious resource as could be recovered before the snows fell and closed the trails.

On the day that the first snowstorm hit the Eyrie, Morden, one of Wenna's Hawk Clan kinsman, along with his Defender staggered through the West Ridge, both burdened with enormous sacks. Rather than go immediately to the Star House, the two tramped straightto the House of Healers. Within moments, the exciting news spread throughout the tribe. Morden had discovered the site of an underground hospital of some kind. In their explorations, they found a sealed chamber. After a great deal of effort and ingenuity, the two managed to open the chamber to find a cache of medicines. The two explorers brought back all they could carry. Of course, the bottles and ampules would have to be sorted through, identified and tested for potency, but the potential boon for the health of the tribe was beyond measure. In one of their all-too-few times together, Wenna shared her great excitement with Fors. "Even if the drugs themselves are beyond use, we can analyze and perhaps recreate them." It was a thrilling time and the tribe now faced the long winter with a collective confidence not felt in recent memory.

In the midst of those busy days, Fors and Wenna somehow found time to spend together. The feelings between them grew and deepened. They did have occasional disagreements, inevitable between two such fiercely independent people. But more and more, both of them discovered, or in Wenna's case, rediscovered a very special part of themselves.

Kreston remained somewhat aloof. In the way of adolescents, his moods swung from warmth to outright hostility. There were days when he seemed genuinely happy at his mother's new-found joy. But there were other days when he made Fors feel like an intruder. Fors remained patient, knowing that this particular relationship would have to be built like one of the Eyrie's buildings: one stone at a time.

It had been storming most of the day, the snow piling up throughout the stronghold. It was deep enough now to require snowshoes to be able to move around. Night had fallen and Fors had stopped to visit Wenna after a long day at the Star House. Upon entering, Nira, who had become as welcome as Fors, immediately went to the fireplace and curled up. 

Wenna was bent over a collection of bottles, part of the treasure of medicine, frowning as she tried to read the faded lables. Fors was trying to help, contributing his better vision to the task. Kreston wandered in and out of the room, occasionally tending the fire. Taking note of her son's restlessness, she got Fors' attention, and using her eyes, motioned the Star Man in his direction. He got up, stretched and moved towards the fire. Out of the corner of his eye, Fors saw the boy look towards him anxiously.

Fors turned and smiled. "You've done well preparing this house for winter. That is no easy task."

Fors saw a pleased expression briefly cross the boy's face. There was a moment of silence, then Kreston asked, "What is it like to be a Star Man?"

Fors responded, "What do you think it is like?"

"Well, you're famous and respected in the Eyrie. Everyone likes you. You get to travel to new places and discover things. And you bring back things that help the tribe."

"That is true," Fors said. "But that is far from the whole truth." Fors turned away from the fire and sat down beside Kreston.

"There is the isolation, being alone far away from anyone you know. If you get into trouble, you have only your training, strength, and wits to save you. It can be a very hard and lonely life."

There followed seveal silent moments, as the boy thought. Hesitantly, almost fearfully he asked, "Were you ever afraid of dying?"

Fors heard a sharp intake of breath from behind. Wenna was obviously listening.

"Star Men are sworn to neither draw sword nor bow unless their life is threatened. That forbearance alone will protect you in many situations. Any warrior will react to a drawn weapon. But to face an enemy who stands unarmed and unafraid causes hesitation and curiosity, and that provides the opening for men to speak to one another. But, yes, there have been many times in my life when combat was forced upon me. Was I afraid?" Fors paused as dark memories flashed through his mind. "To be perfectly honest, I was so busy during a fight that there wasn't time to feel fear. Usually it was not until afterwards, when I had time to consider what might have happened." Fors shrugged, "And at that point, it was too late, anyway."

Kreston regarded him silently. "Then, you do not fear death."

Fors met the boy's eyes. Gently, but seriously, he said, "I respect death. To fear death is to fear life, because the greatest fear of a man is losing that life. In order to perform the task of a Star Man, you must embrace life and accept the risk of death. People who only love safety will never accomplish much."

The boy turned towards the fire. Silence filled the room, save for the crackling sound coming from the fireplace. Presently, Kreston returned from his contemplation and looked at Fors. Fors could see decision there. He had made a choice.

"Your father taught you, did he not?"


Another pause. "Will you teach me?"

Fors looked into the boy's eyes. He spoke in a grave voice, "The training will be the most difficult thing you have ever done. I cannot show you any favor. In fact, I will demand of you things that will bring anger to you, and even hatred of me. This is necessary because out on the trails there are no second chances. You must be ready to face danger, and also to employ discipline. Once you embark on this path there can be no turning back, no second thoughts. Your commitment must be complete. If you are prepared for this harsh reality, if you are ready for the risks, the demands...and the pain...," Fors paused, once more measuring the strength in Kreston's eyes, "...then yes; I will teach you."

From behind them, they heard another gasp. Together they turned and beheld Wenna, standing stock-still with her hand covering her mouth. Seeing their questioning looks, she attempted to regain her composure. In a voice slightly shaky, she said, "Kreston, it is time for bed."

The two arose. Fors placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Think seriously of this for a few days. This is no decision to be made quickly." He glanced briefly at Wenna. "And, uh..talk to your mother."

Kreston nodded gravely and went to his room. Fors walked slowly over to Wenna. Close up, he could see the unshed tears in her eyes. He held out his arms, into which she almost fell, the tears now flowing. She whispered, "Fors, he is just a boy."

"For only a little while longer."

She took a deep, if shakey breath. "I knew this day would come, eventually. He always idolized his father, and I could see the respect he has developed for you, as well. I guess...I just was not ready for him to grow up."

Gently, he lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. "It will be years before he will take to the trails. And I promise you that when he does, he will be ready."

Wenna closed her eyes for a moment, steadying herself. When they opened again, Fors was inwardly rocked by the intensity he saw. She gripped his shoulders tightly, and in a voice taught with worry, spoke but two words:

"Make sure."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Chapter Ten

The summons from Jarl came to Fors in the Star House on a frigidly cold day in mid-winter. The words were simple and straightforward, directing Fors to attend the Eyrie Council meeting the next day. Fors carefully laid the message on the table, staring at the seemingly innocuous words. The import behind the summons was starkly clear.

The Eyrie Council was the first attempt at organization undertaken by the early tribal members when the disastrous news of the last war from the lowlands brought them to the realization that they must remain in the mountains in order to survive. Initially, it was only the means by which the work was organized. As time went on and that early organization became a self-sustaining bureacracy, the Council became an arena where issues social, political, and logistical were debated and decided. The nature of life in the mountains, where people daily faced the hard choices of survival had historically created a common unity. But on occasion, even among this tribe of pragmatics, divisive issues arose. And the storms resulting from those issues often broke with ferocity across the Council table. Being on the trails for most of his life, Fors missed many of those storms, perhaps, he considered with a pang of regret, purposefully.

Since Jarl's assumption of the role of Guardian, the Eyrie had moved out into perviously unknown territory. Contact with the other tribes had grown from the rare to the commonplace. This outreach had created tensions among those who for the first time were confronting diversity. Fors' experiences as a Star Man and the tribe's ranking diplomat had taught him that humankind must eventually unite if the race was ever to return to its earlier glory. But others within the tribe did not share that perspective. To them, the unknown was a threat; a source of fear and suspicion. Some of those voices, Fors knew, sat on the council.

That evening, he shared his discomfort with Wenna. Kreston had already retired, somewhat goggle-eyed with fatigue after spending several hours learning how to read and use maps. As the boy had left the room, Fors smiled ruefully to himself, remembering such mind-numbing sessions with his own father.

In the gathering darkness of a dying fire, Fors unburdened himself. Wenna listened patiently, and then responded with a worthy bit of advice: "Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth firmly shut. And learn." Fors nodded in agreement. There was little of value he could contribute to such a forum, in any event.

They continued to talk, sharing the trivial events of their days, occasionally laughing quietly. The evening was growing late, and Fors knew he needed to return to his home. But, as such evenings had passed, he was finding it increasingly difficult to leave this remarkable woman. Lately, the simple act of walking out the door had evolved into many minutes of embraces, hand-holding, and kissing. And during the day, despite the demands of his duties, he found it hard to concentrate at times, drifting off into a daydream of anticipation. Gradually, almost subconciously, he realized that was approaching a point of decision. He knew that there hung between them an as-yet unasked question, one that would irrevocably change both their lives. Fors had spent his life asking tough questions of others, demanding of them fundamental changes in their actions and attitudes. Yet, this was different, and Fors often found himself warring with two parts of himself; the man who steadfastly made his own way in life, and the boy who still remembered the pain of rejection.

On this night, they lay before the fire quietly, both reluctantly contemplating the end of this time together. Fors gazed into her green eyes, silently, gently tracing the contours of her face with his fingers. She sighed, somehow conveying the substance of her contentment in that simple exhalation. Within himself, he felt something slide into place; the time had come.

"For so long, I have lived from day to day, avoiding consideration of the future. I always felt that if I took care of today, that the future would take care of itself."

Wenna's eyes widened slightly, her breathing quickened, but she remained silent.

"But in our time together, I have realized that there are certain elements of the future that cannot be ignored." He paused, gathering his courage. "I have grown to love you and my thoughts about us now seem to turn more towards the future, to what may lie ahead. Whatever awaits in the days ahead, I know now that I want to face that future with you."

Fors watched her face carefully, almost warily, looking for the first hint of response. A moment passed, a seeming eternity, then Wenna's eyes filled with tears. In a shaky voice, with just a bit of her characteristic pique, she said, "I sense you have a question to ask me."

He steadied himself, then helped her to stand up. He took her hands, strong and capable, yet graceful and tender. He looked into her eyes, then carefully sank to one knee before her. He gently kissed her hand, and summoning up every bit of his courage, asked the question.

"Wenna, in the warmth of the love we share, I say to you that I desire that our two lives would become one; that together we would walk the road of life, with all the joys and sorrows, and victories and defeats we may encounter along the way. Will you complete my happiness and consent to become my wife?"

Her eyes overflowed, the tears now freely flowing down her cheeks. Fors waited breathlessly. She suddenly became aware of the passage of time, and nodded quickly, and in a voice shaking with happiness, she responded, "Yes!"

Pulling Fors to his feet, she threw her arms around his scarred shoulders. They embraced, holding each other tightly, as if to suspend time and make the moment and eternity. Pulling back, she whispered, "I could conceive of no greater joy and honor than to have you as my husband."

They kissed deeply, with a passion neither had to this point allowed each other to experience. As before, time seemingly went away. The night, the cold of winter, even the house and the buildings of the Eyrie faded away, leaving them alone in their own world.

After a time, they sat down, holding hands and sharing their happiness. Wenna still gasping a bit, said, "We will tell Kreston together."

Unexpectedly, a voice spoke up out of the darkness. "Tell me what?"

Surprised, the two turned and beheld Kreston standing with tousled hair at the entrance to the hallway. Wenna reached out her hand and Kreston took it, as she guided him to a chair. All three sat together. Fors cleared his throat and began.

"Kreston, your mother and I have grown very close these past few months. As we have become familiar, we have discovered that we love each other very much. I have asked her to be my wife."

Wenna continued, "And I have accepted. We have lived alone, you and I, these many years since your father died. But time has passed, and I have found happiness once again." To Fors surprise, she said, "Kreston, you and I have talked about this possibility, and I hope you will accept this happily."

The room went silent as the boy looked from Wenna to Fors, his face devoid of expression. Fors had to remind himself to breathe, as they awaited the boy's reaction. Finally, he spoke. "You have asked to marry my mother?" Fors nodded. Kreston's gaze turned to his mother. "And you have accepted?" Wenna, in turn, also nodded. He turned back to Fors. "Are you now to become my father?"

Fors paused, and replied, "Stephen will always be your father. But I will guide you, teach you...and love you as a father should."

Kreston nodded slightly, then rose and placed his hand on Fors's shoulder. "It sure took you long enough." He then smiled broadly, and all three burst into laughter.

A while later, Fors finally found himself at the door, preparing to go home. As he donned his warm winter outer garments and snowshoes, Wenna and Kreston stood silently watching. Ready to go, Fors, after a moment's hesitation, reached out his hand to Kreston. The boy responded by embracing the Star Man. The boy then stepped back, smiling. It was a different face now. Open, and affectionate. Fors then embraced and kissed Wenna and headed out into the storm. Despite the cold and snow, Fors felt a warmth deep inside that he had not felt in his memory. It took some moments to discover the meaning of that warmth, but the realization brought him great joy.

For the first time, in a very long time, he had a family.