“Truly, steps must be taken.” The speaker’s tone was flat, unemotional, a quiet statement characteristic of any Ptolian politician. “We know the rumors must have some substance, else they could hardly be this persistent.
“There is much we do not know. We hear stories of wild beings from Southland forests, never before known to us but now seemingly multiplied and grown adventurous. At least three southernmost segments have had whotol fields burned. Two sturdy Ptolian citizens in that area have disappeared without a trace, and at least one Clan warrior was found hacked to pieces. Wild tales are spreading by the dozens. Our people are beginning to arm with sword and shield for the first time since the Ancient Wars.”
“Well spoken.” Ghian the Great’s distinctive voice boomed easily across the Council Chamber, a welcome resonance in contrast to the previous speaker’s rather lifeless delivery. Stories of these wild Southlanders described them as typically Ptolian in appearance, only a bit stockier and with skin a bluer shade than the average red-purple Clansa. Though life was not soft in this land of rolling plains and cyclical drought, Ptolians usually lived many, many cycles. To have murder and burning of sacred whotol fields by creatures from the Unknown Forests required War Council, indeed.
“It has been long since our people armed, or had need of it. Clearly, some of our energies must be directed to rearming. Other efforts must be made toward scouting, for which unfortunately too few of us are trained in recent cycles. Even when trained, I fear many of our best scouts and spies will not return from the tangled, dark, and unknown jungles of the South.”
“Speaking of spies,” shot forth a voice, “what about Gar!” The bark of contempt fairly spat through the room. “None is stranger than that one. It occurs to me that even his skin is bluer than ours, fitting all descriptions we’ve had.”
Ghian shifted slightly to face Sardole the Quick. Hasty to judgment, overly sure of himself, this one would leap to attack in any situation. Left alone, Sardole would impetuously plunge into even a crude Dwagel ambush and find one of their slim, curved daggers in his kidneys. Or a great double bladed axe chopping him off at the knees. The giant Spokesman picked his words carefully. Nothing carried greater weight with the Clan than War Words spoken in Council; every syllable counted.
“Thy words are not without merit, Sardole.” All the Council hung on his words. This was dangerous. Especially dangerous since he and Garrhan the Sure had once been close friends. Any slip would be detected at once. “The actions of that one have indeed been weird. There are members here who know the ways of scouting and spying, including yourself. Would you state for us the Scout Creed Key?”
The Quick One nodded and spoke rapidly. “The Key is as follows. The Scout or Spy must mingle with the populace, yet he must keep to himself without appearing to do so. He must in all ways be superior to those against whom he spies, while appearing as one of them.”
Ah, good. The Quick One was trapped, though as yet he did not perceive it. The “superior” part always amused Ghian secretly. One did not, however, tamper with the Creed.
“Thank you.” Ghian paused a moment, assessing the temper in the gathering. By custom, Council Vote must decide. “How do you see this, Begann?”
“Began the Cultivator smiled but spoke seriously. “The Outcast Gar, while living among us for may cycles prior to his ostracism, has never pretended to be like the rest of us. True, his mate is of our segment, but his actions have never blended in. To put it mildly. I thus do not see that he fits the Creed.”
Excellent. Begann thought well. Of equal importance, he had never really liked Garrhan. It would not occur to the Council that one could possibly be a spy unless the Creed fit him like a glove. Most members readily accepted Begann’s argument; it was in their faces. Now, thought Ghian, there is only one more point that needs to be made.
“Well spoken, Begann. The Creed does not then fit. As to the color of his skin,” he added, his gaze sweeping back and forth across the room, “it is true he is slightly bluer than most Ptolians in this segment. Yet our cousins of the northwest segments are even a little bluer than the Outcast…as indeed is your own sister, Sardole.”
His gaze had come to rest on the lean nine-footer. Laughter rippled across the chamber briefly. Emanations circled, dipped, darted. Council temper had been turned, but at what cost? Sardole would not easily forgive being made the butt of a joke.
Most of the deciding was done, though it took nearly four more marks to work out the details. Azanus the Prudent was given charge of the Scout and Spy Troop (SST) training. Captaincy of the Home Guard contingent went to Lainus the Strong, while command of the Thrust Troop was delegated to Barule the Braggart. Toughest of all to choose had been Mate Troop leadership. Two females, Karima the Wise and Lasin the Young, were eminently qualified to head this dual purpose, offensive-defensive contingent. In the end, Captaincy came to rest on Lasin’s shoulders, with Karima as her second in command.
By next midcycle, the first full SST class would graduate. Top qualifiers from that class would be sent into action immediately following graduation. In the meantime, intelligence reports would have to be compiled from scattered and often garbled border reports.
Reconnaissance within the terrifying Southland jungles would have to wait its turn.
By the time Ghian reached his own hut, the mark was late indeed. Karra was waiting up for him, a bedtime mug of whotol tea steaming, corner soil freshly swept that his great frame might embrace mother Ptolia in slumber with no stray twig or stone to come between. Her usually cheerful face was a bit more somber this night, but she was of sterner stuff than would be guessed by most. Prior to courting, Ghian had seen through her bubbly exterior and realized with rare perception that she was deep and strong and full of life. Tonight, the night of a Council with War Words, that strength showed. She scanned her mate’s emanations unobtrusively. Yes, a small flicker. He was healing, but she should not have been able to detect any disturbance at all were he at full strength. A few more days….
It did not take him long to finish the tea, unsheathe his sword, and lie down in the sleeping corner. Karra curled up at his side, her own slim blade resting beside the great steel her mate had wielded so effectively, long ago. There was a soft breeze tonight, singing gently against her cheek as she lay in the semi-dark of ever shifting triple moon patterns of light and shade. There was no door to close; let the enemy who dared attempt to cross a threshold guarded by Ptolian steel.
A small, uneasy ripple crossed her consciousness, foreboding change. She dismissed it without even knowing it had come. In moments, she was asleep.
It other huts throughout Central Village, newly assigned commanders met with their core staff members to begin plans for rearmament. Their Spokesman might rest this night; their own sleep must wait.