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.”