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.