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: