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Maybe you shouldn't go home again!
For 5000 years the humanoid Mateek and their human counterparts, the Wai'min, have long been subjugated by the descendants of a marooned Earth Colony, the self-proclaimed Children of Orion, their cultures relegated to near legend. But now there are strangers who camp on the banks of the Zhul, strangers said to have been sent by Orion himself.
Meet Trice, feisty young heiress to an island throne, equally skilled at the controls of a helicopter or the heft of a throwing knife; Jyanne, her willful kid sister, the so-called storm child who washed ashore bearing powers of the banished ones, powers to part oceans with a single command; and DaNorbin, handsome desert mercenary with a hidden heritage that goes back to the very beginnings, who would make love to one sister after attempting to kill the other. One final homecoming in the company of a man who has crossed the stars is all Trice intends, not realizing that a vengeful Mateek war lord unknowingly walks an era far removed from his own time. Return to Ash'elon may prove that you better not go home again.
````Trice emerged from the doorway of her domed cabin without so much as a look back, her overnight duffel swinging easily by her knee as she strode up the tree shrouded path beside the river. A single rose colored light marked her destination, its pinpoint brilliance softened by a slow moving evening mist that had begun to filter in from the waters beyond the evergreens. It was as if an ocean fog had somehow found its way up onto Karrah's High Plateau, a mist-like presence in search of its runaway daughter.
Beyond the branches lay the river Zhul, its waters flowing with singular purpose, its current unaffected by weather or season. Far different indeed were the tides surrounding her home island of Ash'elon. It was said that these turbulent waters were born of a mythical struggle between quarrelsome sisters, the moons Aisee, Gyinah, and Zhaine. Foolhardy indeed was the traveler who dared ventured beyond Ash’elon’s sea gate without escort, for this fearsome surge swept the flats of everything in its path, easily outpacing the fastest horse. Yet the people of Ash'elon's fortress were grateful for their isolation, these awesome currents presenting a formidable barrier against the warlike clans who lurked just over the horizon on the desert mainland known as Emzebee.
A hoarse barking cough punctuated the darkness.
An unsettling sound from somewhere out on the river that made Trice wish she carried something more substantial than the throwing knife at her belt. Again came the cough, followed by a rapid knocking that trailed away in a series of hollow sighs.
One never swam in the Zhul.
Local Wai’min natives warned of venomous tongued T'hamchucts and clawed footed emberrays, monster amphibians fully capable of swallowing a grown sheep alive. While not likely beasts to lurk along the shores at night, especially near a populated settlement, Trice nonetheless slowed her pace, staring through the gloom, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that swam out there in the darkness. A splash exploded from the far river bank, the sharp slap reverberating across the unseen waters again and again. Then silence.
Eat or be eaten.
Trice smiled grimly to herself.
Had not Ash'elon's youngest queen, her late mother Natali, faced such a fate, forced to chose duty above the lover who had fathered her only child? That he bore the surname Cha'nya, a foreigner of noble lineage, made little difference to Ash'elon's Council of Four. In their learned opinion, off-island blood, no matter how aristocratic, could never be pure enough.
That the Cha'nya were said to have mated with the dreaded nonhuman Mateek, back during those dark days when the Children of Orion first gathered on N'Ayu's shores, made Natali's proposed union all the more repugnant. It was further said that generations tainted by this impossible union carried a blue tint to their skin, though from Trice’s experience, daily examination proved no such thing.
To think that her mother had tolerated such fools.
Lucky that the long awaited emissaries of the God Orion had returned in her lifetime, her youth, her skill as an Ash'elon Navigator ideally suited to their needs. While the pretentious Council of Four would forever insist that wisdom be equated with adulthood, Orion's pragmatic representatives had asked no questions; had accepted her solely on her own merit. They seemed not to care that she had been only seventeen summers old at the time.
Trice picked up her stride, savoring the tiny water droplets that swept against her cheeks; the fragrant cinnamon scent of fleestwood bark floating on the mists. Here in the shade of these tall corrugated evergreens, trees as high as Ash'elon's keep tower, she had been assigned a cabin all to herself with a view of snow capped mountains to the north, their shadowy cirques and soil streaked glaciers frozen for all time. Here at Mallycastle were those who appreciated her.
Doubtful that any of the Orion newcomers had guessed her to be royalty, or for that matter, were even aware of Ash'elon's twin ruling families: the feisty red headed Mishaas and their more temperate counterparts, the affable dark haired Sh'rums. Far be it for Trice to have revealed that as a Mishaa, she might have ruled an island kingdom of some two thousand inhabitants.
She had given it up gladly.
Let her elderly step-father, Haaron Sh'rum, rule Ash'elon in her stead. Let him stand regent for Natali's adopted daughter Jyanne, the so called Storm Child who had floated ashore wrapped in a Wai’min blanket some eight winters ago, the sole survivor of a shipwrecked sailing vessel. Ironic indeed that shortly before her mother’s death, Natali had proclaimed Jyanne heir to the throne over the Council's objections.
Certainly all Ash'elon regarded Jyanne with consternation.
A witch's child, the troublemakers whispered, a Sanoahan no less; a daughter of the banished ones who practiced the deadly arts of cas laah and cas'taa. Was it not obvious that she carried the tiny red jewel known as a zeepray embedded in the flesh of her right temple? Certainly the child would grow up a Majiskala, a sorceress to be put to the flames.
At least in days of old.
No matter that Wai’min peasants as well as the Seven Chosen Families, casually adopted the zeepray as a foible of fashion, wearing them as beauty marks for festive occasions. No matter that the select few of Ash'elon who belonged to the Navigators' Guild--of which Trice was a member--used these same mystical sea stones to discern fast moving weather fronts or envision safe passage through fog shrouded waters.The art of ciancias it was called; not magic but a cultivated talent, though strangely enough, none but first-born children of either caste were able to master the discipline.
Trice's relationship with her adopted younger sister had accordingly suffered, her own childhood days subject to the rigorous schooling of the Navigator's Guild. Perhaps no wonder that Jyanne accepted her abrupt departure for Mallycastle some three summers ago with no more than an unconcerned nod. Then came Natali's sudden death one summer later. Changing everything, yet changing nothing.
Upon her brief return for her mother's funeral, Trice had found Jyanne aged beyond her six summers: sullen, uncommunicative; seeming to prefer the companionship of her various pets rather than reacquainting herself with her older sister. Even her step-father Haaron appeared distant, his once vibrant spirit dulled by Natali's fatal stroke. To make matters worse, a young woman purporting to be the child's tutor hovered at his elbow, her duplicitous manner belying her professed love for Ash'elon's departed Queen. More than ever Trice felt like a total stranger; stripped of what little family she had left; her decision to leave Ash'elon no longer an issue.
She passed through the stranded wire fence marking the inner perimeter of the Orion base and eagerly made her way along the side of a squat windowless building. Though no more than a year old, the metal siding was already pitted and stained, a wasteful building material as far as she was concerned considering the human effort needed to extract metal from open pit mines. By contrast, Ash'elon's granite walls were as solid as the sea swept ledges that fanned from beneath the fortress like outstretched claws of a bird of prey. Ash'elon would always be.
Trice turned the corner.
Her rotor-craft lay beneath the pink tinged glare of the work lights, its silver flight deck suspended within a web-like metallic frame. The side hatch had been thrown back in anticipation of her arrival, the rotor blade cycling in a slow sweeping arc like a glinting scythe. Even now the auto pilot was automatically sequencing through its preflight check, the rippling glow of dancing lights emanating from the flight displays up forward.
Trice started at the nearness of the voice.
Had she become so spoiled with easy living that her eyes could no longer detect shadow from substance?
“Orlidia! You surprised me.”
“You're early as always, Trishalla.”
Praise or implied criticism?
One could never be sure with this Orion Operation's Officer.
While Orlidia's bronzed skin and red hair gave the impression that they might have been sisters, she was older than Trice by perhaps five or six summers. Her stance as always was overbearing, her shoulders thrust forward as if she were ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness. Though they both wore ca-boi's, narrow toed boots that molded comfortably to the foot, Orlidia was dressed in fatigues, skin tight metallic uniforms that her people preferred within the privacy of their base.
Orion clothing held no appeal for Trice, fatigues making her skin clammy in the summer's heat. Worst of all, these immodest garments made her feel undressed. Her preferred dress consisted of the loose harbor attire favored by generations of Ash'elon seamen: belted thigh length linen shirts embodied with a big fish, little fish motif worn over ankle length canvas trousers. And not to forget the her broad billed hasta skin cap, the mark of Ash’elon seaman everywhere. Still she and Orlidia were cousins after a fashion; cousins long separated by the stars.
Terrans they called themselves.
“We've canceled your hop over to Rowsegh, Trishalla. I need you to fly down to the Emzebee coast overnight, to a river landing just upriver from Casset. You know that area better than any of us. We need the Scholar back immediately. He's to report to the Orbiter at first opportunity. They're adamant about recalling us I fear.”
Leo, the Scholar was known as, his full name apparently unpronounceable even for the Terrans. In the three years she had been at Mallycastle, Trice had seen him perhaps a half dozen times, the elderly Exploratory Mission Chief preferring to “work in the field” as he called it, engaged in the study of N’Ayu’s wide ranging peoples. Anthropology it was called.
“Emzebee's a nine hour flight,” Trice found herself protesting, “even without head winds.”
During mid-summer, the trades backed around to the southwest.
“You’ve an auto pilot's, I recall, though I can't say I envy you sleeping in that thing overnight. Use the facilities before you go.”
Trice smiled at the motherly advice.
Yet Orlidia's news was disturbing.
“What do you mean you're being recalled?”
Again Orlidia frowned.
“N’Ayu is far too isolated a world to warrant a full time mission. It's a wonder that Leo ever managed to trace you people here as it is. Not only did your ancestors maroon themselves among eight colliding galaxies, they picked a world orbiting a binary neutron star no less. You've been here for some fifteen thousand years now. We haven't the luxury to spend that long with you. Surely Leo must have spoken of this.”
N’Ayu in Wai meant the one chosen world.
In reality her home world was little more than a tiny speck in a waterless sea. More amazing still, these strangers had arrived, not as living gods as most of N’Ayu still thought them, but as men and women with god-like powers nonetheless. Their knowledge could only to be described as awesome.
“Of course I know,” Trice retorted. “Why wouldn't Leo have told me?” An untruth spoken in self-defense.
Why did this woman insist on dueling with her?
Leo's insistence that Trice be trained as one of the courier pilots had not sat well with Orlidia though exactly why, Trice couldn't begin to imagine. Certainly not jealousy for Leo was old enough to be her father. Besides it was no secret that Orlidia was involved in a love affair with a young warden of the Hershcle, a woodlands preserve up river belonging to one of the Kerry nobility of Reshegon.
It was Trice's turn to frown.
“You make it sound as though your leaving is a certainty.”
“We've no choice, Trishalla. Not that this rustic world of yours doesn't possess its share of charm: those jagged snowcapped mountains to the north; the crimson sea; the three moons playing tag with one another. Can you even begin to appreciate the freedom I enjoy just walking in these hills, looking up at that wondrous white arch soaring against an azure sky, your Savan T'nia's Bow?”
In actuality it was a planetary ring, the Terrans were quick to point out.
“What will become of me?” Trice immediately cursed herself for showing weakness in front of this judgmental woman.
“Come, come, Trishalla. Do you think you would survive the endless sameness, the cold blackness between stars?” Orlidia admonished. “Better you return to your island home. Perhaps you can work things out with your former husband.”
Was the woman being deliberately insulting? That marriage had been doomed the moment they set out on their wedding cruise those three summers ago. All the qualities she had so admired in Tal, his defiance of authority, his irreverent wit, all had been unexpectedly turned against her by the time they had reached shelter of Rosberin Harbor. With their lee rail buried in the teeth of a fierce autumn gale, she had assumed full command of their sailing cutter, threatening to kick him overboard if he countermanded another decision. She would have done it too, had they not spotted Leo struggling in the storm swept waters.
Leo had changed everything.
“You know I've no love left for Tal. You've...” Trice could feel her throat tightening. How much did this woman know about her former life? “Why wouldn't I be allowed to join you? I'm the best pilot you have. There's none among you who possess my talents for working the sea stones.”
Orlidia seemed taken aback at her resistance.
“Sea stones? Do you think we have fog banks in outer space? Navigation between stars is the least of our worries. Granted we're indebted to you for saving Leo's life, Trishalla.” The tactful Orlidia now. “That you managed to pull him from that frigid sea when his rotor-craft went down was nothing short of a miracle. I admit I had my doubts, yet you've done remarkably well here; your flying skills are admirable to say the least. Still you're better off back at Ash'elon. It's impossible that you come with us.”
There was no arguing with her.
“So’ohm, Trishalla.” Still Orlidia hesitated for a moment, the Ash'elon word for hello and goodbye echoed hollowly, its implication of unity and special affection oddly out of character. A weak smile played across the older woman's features. “Here are your navigation coordinates. Please, it's hard enough for me. I've formed too many attachments as it is.”
“So’ohm, Orlidia.” Trice automatically accepted the hinged metal folder, concealing her surprised that this woman would admit to her own misgivings.
“Oh, there's a package for Leo in the baggage compartment; some communication equipment he requested before all this came up. Will you see that he gets it?” Without waiting for a reply, Orlidia headed in the direction of the operations shelter.
A clattering from the flight pad drew Trice's attention. A young Terran technician struggled with a metal service platform, trying to roll it out of the way over the irregular paving blocks that lined the edge of the ancient courtyard. Now she couldn't wait to leave.
“Good evening, Wicks,” she called out as she moved forward.
Trice made a supreme effort to be civil for she had lost her temper with him only the night before upon her return from the construction site on Rowsegh. Wicks had been slow to answer her call; turning on the boundary lights at the last possible moment, her approach through the mists impossible without them.
Not only that...
Last night she had noticed a young woman who hung at the edge of the shadows, perhaps sixteen or seventeen summers with shoulder length dark hair. While her hunter's doublet and leather trousers were considered fashionable among the upper classes of the walled city that formed Mallycastle proper, her feet had been bare. That she was obviously waiting for him proved to be a surprising turn of events. Trice had long considered Terran men to be rather dull. There was no tang to them, no spark signifying that they were capable of anything more than platonic friendship. They tended to humor her along, time after time deferring to her point of view. Sometimes she wondered whether they regarded her as an eligible young woman at all.
At Ash'elon, she'd had more fiery relationships.
“She's set to go, Captain,” Wicks shouted in slightly accented T'ranh, the universal dialect of the Seven Chosen Families. He wrestled the metal platform against the wall. “You're free of the umbilical. Watch yourself when you lift out. Fog's setting in earlier than expected. Op’s says you’ll encounter a weather front about mid-morning.”
She shrugged at this bit of information. Their weather predictions were hopelessly inaccurate, influenced by something called solar spots that emanated from the two dark centered suns that dominated N’Ayu's skies, the much maligned Twins Above.
“Full charge?” she inquired.
He bit his lip.
“Hell, you've got twenty thousand K's range with one of these units,” he protested. “She'll run the Briadies Archipelago from mainland to mainland several times over.”
Again she was infuriated with him. Where was his sense of responsibility? How busy could the man possibly be with only two aircraft left to service? He was doing nothing more than his job; one of a team. Where was the work ethic continually stressed by the Terrans?
Perhaps his woman friend was still around.
“So I just drop in on the Barrows court at Casset and ask Queen Zhu'deh herself for the loan of a sailing vessel to finish my run?” Without waiting for his reply, Trice swung up into the cockpit and leaned over the back of the flight chair. She stabbed at a rocker switch. A dull silver screen flashed into display mode at her touch. The power indicators was full up, topping the green. She tossed her flight itinerary onto the passenger seat and eased herself back down on the tarmac. She began her preflight inspection, Wicks trailing after her, a worried expression on his face.
What possible interest could he have in some local female?
“It was full up,” she snapped, knowing he wouldn't dare ask. “Still you must never make assumptions. I'd never pass up an opportunity to re-provision a sailing craft on a long voyage. At Ash’elon we’ve often had storms that swept us so far east of the Briadies, it takes a twenty-day, no, almost a month to work our way back.” She stumbled over the Terran expression of time.
“Sorry, Captain,” Wicks mumbled as she threw open the baggage bay under the flight deck. As expected the parcel for the Scholar was there, copper-foil wrapped, its weight appearing to be negligible. Still she fully intended to drive home her point, go through the check list by the book.
“By your own standards this is a primitive craft.” She tossed in her duffel bag and slapped the hatch shut, tugging several times at the latch to insure that it would remain locked. “All the more reason to accept your responsibilities.”
She had always enjoyed eye level contact with men.
With Wicks she was forced to look up.
“Primitive’s got nothing to do with it,” he protested. “This craft's antiquated, but it works fine for our purposes. You couldn't begin to set up enough power-beams to handle hovercraft. Beams are line of sight--wholly impractical. Besides it’s to got to be more fun flying this rig than sitting back at the mercy of some Op’s computer.”
Trice was not about to admit he was right, at least not aloud. She continued her walk around, placing her hand against the side of the fuselage; sensing the vibration of the metal skin; losing herself to the whistling hum issuing from the revolving rotor hub overhead. Orlidia had impressed upon her that the sound and feel of the craft were the best indicators that something might be amiss; that the displays weren't to be counted on.
Acerbic as she was, Orlidia had been a concerned instructor.
From what Trice could see from ground level, the intake for the tail ducts looked clear. Hopefully Wicks had been more alert when he was up on the platform earlier. She scanned the landing skids, assuring herself that the tie-downs had been removed. All she needed now was to lift off with one skid still fastened to the tarmac. The rotor-craft would flip immediately.
“Did you know that the Crown Prince of Rowsegh keeps a summer dacha up here,” he ventured, “It's just a few hours ride north.”
Rowsegh’s island politics were certainly of no interest to her though Orlidia's lover was undoubtedly one of the Prince's stewards. Still Wicks seemed anxious to talk. Perhaps his lady friend wasn't expected until later.
“I was invited there last night, to a Sagaman's fire-circle,” he rattled on. “Op’s forgot to alert me that you were due in.”
Hopefully it was Orlidia's oversight. Trice pulled herself up into the flight deck and settled into her seat. “No wonder the lights were out. You must have been dead from the wine.” She reached for her shoulder harness.
“I only came back by chance.”
Trice swung the cyclic control over her lap, locking it in place with a dull click. Just the feel of the dampening mechanism within the little joystick was enough to improve her humor.
“It's always hard to raise Mallycastle once you're airborne,” she admitted. “The signal's jammed half the time. That's why they're installing that com-dish down on Rowsegh's southern peninsula.”
She reached for her flight helmet.
“A Sagaman performed a telling last night,” he went on, “a chronicle that mentions an ancient temple dedicated to Ash'elon that‘s located on the island of Reshegon. It's supposed to be somewhere up in the mountains above Lon'gove, in a high valley called the Ta’shaze.”
His Wai’min pronunciation was so atrocious that it was hard to know what word he intended. The clicked first syllable that distinguished much of the Wai’min dialect from T'ranh was so badly slurred as to be almost unrecognizable. Couldn't he hear that almost silent “nah” that followed the snap of the tongue?
“T'shees,” she corrected him.
The mythical Sacred Lake Of The Clouds.
The chronicles of T’shees was a saga more often requested than even the romantic epic Randa and Bandalar, for it celebrated King Mose's victory over the gray skinned Mateek, N’Ayu's legendary non-humans. What child of Ash'elon could not relate that final, dreadful assault on the enemy's mountainous stronghold?
Upward the warriors struggled
In air so thin,
Their breath wasted not on words
Should the time come to swing a blade
“In ancient times, my people fought a decisive battle at T'shees against the Mateek. To this day we are warned of their vengeful return should our people forsake the values that made us strong.”
Even through the visa-glass Wicks looked impressed.
“Captain, is it true that the Mateek once frequented the old market place right here in Mallycastle; that they were the so-called Ancient Ones who constructed the metal fortress here?”
“You're not likely to see a Mateek come out of the hills now,” Trice replied. She was anxious to get aloft but this turn of conversation fascinated her. “Like the Wai’min, their day has come and gone, as well it should. According to the sagas, the Mateek once had the audacity to subject humans to slavery. My ancestor's chance arrival upon these shores released the Wai’min from centuries of bondage.”
The hatch slid shut behind her.
Wicks had his communication headband on now. “My lady friend says the temple is maintained by a sect of celibate women known as the Drees. Are they from Ash'elon?”
Impossible to say without grinning.
Trice checked her safety harness once again. Her knowledge of N’Ayu’s mythology did not include the Drees whomever they were. Certainly her stepfather Haaron had never sung of them. “Why don't you visit there and find out, Wicks? You Terrans have the freedom to roam anywhere you choose.”
Places where they wouldn't allow her to follow.
“Leo studies this world for reasons known only to himself.” Wick's tone seemed bitter even over the cap-com. “I warn you, Captain, things are not as they seem with us.”
No, thought Trice. That's not how she saw it. The Orion Scholar sought to fit the pieces into the overall picture, fill in the missing centuries that tied their two peoples together. She glanced impatiently at her wrist chronometer. The prospect of an all night flight was rapidly losing its appeal.
“Got to go,” she said. “Clear?”
“Clear, Captain. Mind the trees going out. Your wind's off the river.
Ah'dae!” He used the old Wai-term, implying future rendezvous.
“Ah'dae, Wicks,” she called, though she knew she was invisible to him through the silvered visa-glass.
Still he waved in reply and stepped back.
She nudged the power up to fifty percent, feeling the craft began to tremble under the strain, the rotor still free-wheeling. She scanned the display strip one final time. Everything in the green.
Trice glanced forward, checking to make sure Wicks was still clear. Again he waved. She increased power to one hundred percent; easing the collective up with her left hand to pull pitch; feeling the rotor bite in. The craft leaped from the pad, veering away from the metal sheathed hanger as she adjusted the direction of the rotor's pull with a nudge of the cyclic. Maintaining directional trim with her foot pedals, she allowed her forward momentum to provide the necessary lift, the silver leafed Kay’sha trees easily passing beneath with room to spare.
Throttling back to cruise, she banked to the right, adjusting her course toward the moonlit ocean beyond the Karrahan Plateau. Already the red moon Zhaine glowered high overhead, her glow seeming to cast the already crimson sea in a sheen of metallic ice. On the distant horizon Trice could see a green shimmering: the moon Aisee or Gyinah. One never knew for certain until they climbed into the night. She punched up the moving map display and keyed in her course for Emzebee.
Return to Ash’elon, Orlidia told her.
Nothing there for her now.
How to persuade the Scholar to take her with him?
That challenge she would readily accept.