Marna the Quiet stirred uneasily as sun rays began to shift subtly toward late afternoon. A small irrigation dam occupied her conscious attention for a few more moments; water must flow at just this point to pour gently over the corner alfalfa field. Tall whotol, of course, passed any spare drop of moisture on to its intertwining neighbor; one irrigation entry point of sufficient volume could nourish an entire field through whotol’s osmotic process. Likewise, too little water meant death to an entire field.
These strange plants her mate cherished were different. Each plant stood nearly alone, brushing its neighbors only because of necessity. Cold, indifferent to the survival of its own kind, alfalfa cared little if its own brother lived or died.
Well…perhaps that was too strong. The Dwagel-sized green things were durable. Maybe indifference made individual strength necessary in plants as in Ptolians.
She jerked upright, her attention suddenly, fearfully riveted in the direction of the hut. Gar! She could feel waves rolling through her, ripping at her innards. Unmistakable emanations of conflict roiled in the air as she dropped her adjusting tools and darted for home.
Three of them, it felt like. Marna’s faculties were sensitive; both intuition and reason told her the Council Trio had come. Gar, foolish Gar. He must have argued about the fields. Why? It wasn’t worth it, would never be worth it.
She forced herself to settle down into a steady space-eating jog-lope. Their fields were large, the shelter but a speck in the distance. Were the Council members leaving? One or more even tinier specks danced among shimmering heat waves, but were they real? Gradually, Council waves subsided. She searched within, sorting them out. One, two, three. Yes, there was Ghian’s, unmistakable but incredibly weak. Flickering life forces from those at his heels were not even self sustaining; they fed upon the tottering might of the Spokesman of the Clan.
Where…ah, there. Garrhan’s wave still existed. If she were only there to let him feed on her strength. It would save him. Yet she would arrive too late. Agony swelled in her, tears of loss and grief mingling with sweat and dust, smearing her lovely oval face. Her lithe, eight-and-a-half-foot body began to show its fatigue.
She jog-loped on.
Slowly, surprise began to seep in. It began as a drip, a trickle, then a sudden flood that for a moment brought her up short. He was still alive! Impossible; that was wrong. No Ptolian survived a confrontation with the Trio. Gar could not have withstood their combined onslaught for a moment. Yet he had! The Ptoliana’s senses were too sure to be mistaken; her center still ached from battle-wave strain. She couldn’t believe it.
Garrhan’s wave stopped. Marna searched for Death Pattern as she resumed motion. Not there. How so? She stumbled against an old plow furrow, crying aloud in frustration at breaking her weary pace. More mystery. More confusion. It was as if….
The remaining distance was a blur of sweat, dust, and fatigue. Pain, heat, fear, grief, and bewilderment all fused into a single unhappy nothingness. She went on. As purple-green rays of a glorious Ptolian sunset splashed the hut, a totally exhausted Ptoliana stumbled through its doorway and collapsed against the north wall.
Another mark passed; it was dusk before she felt recovered enough to begin. Conflict had been here, all right. Ripples of it oozed from every wall, an evil, violent presence. A shudder went through her, but she continued her measured appraisal. Her mind’s eye formed a picture, saw combatants rise to their feet as one and eye each other in opposition. The Trio’s waves seemed normal. Yet there was a subtle difference to Garrhan’s, a rounded, rippling effect in contrast to the sharp, brittle-rock form she had experienced only once, cycles ago. It was Gar’s, all right. His stamp of personality was on it, clear and concise: Leh Garrhan the Sure, and no other. Still, no one changed conflict waves! Marna sighed. Mystery upon mystery upon mystery.
The Trio’s wave trail was clear, rising faint and weak but quite perceptible above the soil they had trod at departure. A simple thought track confirmed their survival to property’s edge. That was sufficient for the moment. If Ghian could hold them intact that far, he would not fail to save them. She knew the valiant Spokesman too well to doubt him for a moment. She had loved the huge statesman-warrior once, had felt he would indeed sue for her hand at the midcycle mating matches. He had chosen another. Marna had resented the loss only briefly. Her present mate had arrived to settle in-segment the very next cycle…and promptly swept her off her feet.
Her own gentle personality was, she knew, a quiet balance to Garrhan’s hard driving nature.
Her mate’s wave trail, however, vanished at the doorway. Inside, it was as clear as sunrise on a cloudless day. Outside, it did not exist. There were many legends of Screen Troops and their ancient ability to erase or at least totally disguise emanations from any mortal. A few elders still swore they had witnessed such phenomena. Could her Clansa have rediscovered the technique and kept it from her? She did not know. Certainly, something had caused Gar’s trail to vanish….
It had happened before. Several times, Gar had told her, “The Eck, or Spirit, that holy Voice of God which sustains all life, has work for me. I must be away for a while. I do not know for how long, nor can I tell you my destination. In time, though, the meaning of these journeys will be made clear to you.”
Then he would disappear. Once, upon his return from an absence of more than three cycles, she had questioned him closely, refusing to accept his silence. At last, he had told her, “If I tell you, you will either not believe me, think I am insane, or be struck with terror at the task that lies before me.”
When this had not deterred her, he had reluctantly continued. “I have learned that this body is but a shell we occupy, you and I and all other creatures alike. There is a Being, the Mahanta, who teaches me to leave the shell and travel many places without hindrance. This Being escorts me to a far place and instructs me in many things, for changes such as you have never imagined are coming to Ptolia.”
Never again had she asked. She did not want to believe the enormity of what he revealed–and hinted at–in those few words. Unfortunately, some secret part of her whispered silently that just perhaps he was not insane. On the surface, she accepted his absences as routine, never allowing her mind to even voice questions inwardly. Something beyond mind knew, but mind was prevented from knowing by its own ruts, choosing comfortable familiarity even if the price was ignorance.
Pondering, she was no longer at all sure the owner of these fields had perished, nor even that he would do so in the awful cycles to come. Why he was what he was, she did not know. What he was, even, she did not know. Ptolian? Not quite as she knew the race. No Ptolian could face down a Council Trio and live. Or throw a Screen. Or utilize a conflict wave that rippled and laughed while opponents’ waves lunged and screamed. In other ways, outwardly at least, he was quite normal. His ten feet in height placed him a little above most of his kind, yet well below the champions such as Ghian. His fields were well tended, and he spoke correct phrases in polite company.
Would Garrhan return at all, now that his actions would make him Outcast? Probably. She had not seen him in battle since that time so long, long ago, but the warrior’s nature was in him without question. In that respect, he was all Ptolian and then some.
Marna sat in the doorway of the hut, finally, staring into deepening gloom as a blank resignation settled over her thoughts. She was still there when the sun peeped over the horizon behind her.