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.