Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Star Stone Book 1
was only a man, then,” said old Lucoyo. “But that was
was a lean old man with long, pointed ears, still spry, still quick in limbs as
well as wits. His eyes still glowed as he told the tale to the five small
children, their ears only slightly pointed. Beyond them, near the roaring fire,
an old woman and a young one chatted, looking up occasionally with fond smiles.
Long hair hid their ears, but there was something of the old man’s quickness,
of the mischievous glint in his eye, reflected in the younger woman. She was
shorter than the older.
said last time that he was a big man, Grandfather,” said the oldest child.
he was, so he was! The biggest man in his village, both in height and in
muscle. He was warrior as well as hunter—but he was not an Ulin.”
and there in the long house other members of the family looked up, then began
to move toward the old man and the children, their eyes alight with interest. They
had all heard the tale before, of course, but when the winter wind was howling
about the eaves, old tales and a fireside held a kind of comfort that went
beyond heat and companionship.
Ulin were gods,” said the eldest girl. She must have known where to push, for
the old man reddened and cried, “Not a bit of it—though everyone thought so at
the time, even Ohaern! Even I! Dariad told him otherwise—told him the Ulin were
only bigger and stronger than we, and were all born with magic. But Ohaern said
to me, ‘I cannot see much difference, Lucoyo. Supermen or gods, what matter?
They can still kill you as soon as look at you.’ The sage told him otherwise,
though, and then Ohaern believed.”
he meet shage, G’amfa’?” the smallest child lisped. Even he knew how to deliver
The old man let his face sag into a properly tragic expression. “In a time of
sadness, a time of trouble, that is how Ohaern met him!”
children settled back, eyes shining.
have him going now,” the younger woman whispered to the older.
but it never took much, dear, did it? Let us listen awhile, and see how the
tale swells this time.” But the old woman’s eyes danced as she settled back to
listen to her husband tell the tale of their meeting yet again.
blood roared in Ohaern’s ears, and the room seemed to darken. His grip
tightened around Ryl’s little hand as if it were the only thing real in this
world-suddenly-turned-horrible, by her very own words. He tried not to hear
them, but they echoed in his ears.
not wait—” Ryl broke off with a gasp of pain as another contraction seized her.
When it slackened, she went on as if she had never broken off—but Ohaern winced
at the agony in her eyes.
I am dying, do not ... wait ... for my spirit to leave me ... Cut my body ...
slit with the knife ... and cut the child free ...” She broke off with a cry as
another contraction seized her. Ohaern held tightly to her, trying not to
squeeze the pale hand too hard, her agony reflected in his own misery. When it
passed, she moaned, “If I must die, at least let her ... live.”
seemed that the baby had been battering to be born for hours now, assailing the
gates that would not open for her. Ohaern felt a stab of anger and scolded
himself—surely the child did not know what it was doing to its mother! It only
wanted life, as all people did. Ohaern swallowed against the rock in his throat
and caught both her hands in his. “No, dear one. While we live, the gods must
still be guiding. Time enough to take the child after your breath has
stilled—for surely it shall not! Surely the child is safest in your body! We
must believe that the gods could not be so cruel as to take you so soon, so
young.” But he knew they had taken others, even younger. He showed no sign of
that misgiving, only said, “Remember, if we take the child now, you might not
live—and neither might she! But if you can keep the breath within your body
until she is born and her own breath begun, both of you might see the
started to speak again, but he pressed a finger over her lips. “For now, be
still. Work when your body must, and rest while you can—for the child’s sake.
body tensed and she cried out, clinging so tightly to his hand that he was
amazed to find so much strength in such frail fingers. When her body relaxed
again, she lay panting, wild-eyed, gazing up at him with death in her eyes. He
stared, shaken, but was saved by the hand on his shoulder. He looked up, almost
as wild as Ryl, but the gray-haired matron gazed down at him with compassion
and beckoned, then turned away. Ohaern stared, then looked back at the little
hand that lay limply in his now, at the closed eyes in the perspiring face. “Rest,
beloved. Mardone summons me away—but I shall come back to you as soon as I may.”
then,” she whispered, but did not even open her eyes. She seemed so exhausted,
so spent, that Ohaern had to shake off a paralyzing fear before he could rise
and go after Mardone to the doorway, following the shaman through the hides
that kept out the wind.
the snow lay windswept and clean; the sky was clear, as if the stars were
suspended in ice. Ohaern did not even notice the cold, though, for he saw the
doom in Mardone’s eyes. “She must live!” he cried, then remembered himself,
swallowed his fear and whispered, “She must!”
she does, it shall be the work of the gods,” Mardone told him grimly. “Be sure
that I shall do all I can to seek their aid, Ohaern—but I fear the worst.”
almost seized the older woman, but again caught himself in time. “It must not
pray,” Mardone said simply. “That is the best you can do for her now. Pray to
Lomallin—and leave her to us. There is little you can do inside, Ohaern, and
she will sense your fear.”
gave a choking cry and sank to his knees.
Mardone advised again. Then she was gone, back within the lodge.
knelt in the snow, rigid, his mind as frozen and empty as the sky. Then one of
the stars within that void began to burn more brightly. He looked up through
the naked branches, let his gaze drift to the void between the cold, cold
sparks, and spoke inside his mind:
Lomallin! God of people, lover of
humankind! Be with us now, I pray you! Do all you can, that Ryl may live! O
Lomallin, send wisdom to Mardone, send skill to her hands, send Ryl a birth!
was more, much more, unuttered but issuing from his agony and fear. How long
Ohaern knelt there in the snow, he did not know—but finally, he looked up ...
and saw the figure coming out of the woods a hundred cubits away, cowled robe
light against the darkness of the firs, staff rising and falling in a clenched
sprang in Ohaern’s heart, a hope that he was almost afraid to feel, but he let
it rise and himself with it, stumbling, stepping, running to the robed figure,
crying, “Welcome, stranger!”
cowled head rose, and merry eyes twinkled within its shadow. “Good night to
skidded to a halt, suddenly awkward and at a loss for words. “It ... it is late
to be abroad.”
late,” the stranger agreed. He had a short ruff of beard that hid his jaw, and
a long straight nose. His eyes were large, and his eyebrows as bushy as his
fighting for words, Ohaern asked, “From where do you come?”
Lomallin,” the stranger answered. “Five nights ago, in a dream, Lomallin knew,
and I knew, that a woman would be in peril of her life, from hard birthing,
cried out, as if he had been run through, and sank at the stranger’s feet.
up, get up, hunter!” The sage reached down and lifted him, as if his huge bulk
was of no more weight than a bird’s. “You are her husband, then?”
am—and if you can save her, stranger, I shall be your bondsman for life!”
bondsman, but Lomallin’s,” the stranger corrected sternly, “though he
does not want slaves, only loyal followers. But do not count the lives until
they have been saved, hunter. What is your name?”
The warrior stared.
am Manalo. Who is the woman who labors so long and hard?”
my wife, my darling, the star in my night!”
me where she lies, then,” the stranger urged.
Ohaern turned and went into the birthing lodge.
cried out as they entered—raw and ripping, a cry that tore at Ohaern’s heart.
Her back was arched, every muscle tense, so tense that Ohaern feared they might
pull loose from the bone.
stopped, watching—not staring, just watching, and Ohaern snatched a frantic
glance at him, wondering how the man could be so calm as he watched another’s
agony. But then, it was not
pain, or his wife! Ohaern had to stifle
an impulse of angry resentment—but before he could begin to speak, the scream
ended and Ryl’s poor, tired body collapsed in exhaustion. Ohaern started
forward, but Mardone saw and held up a palm to stop him. Ohaern froze, darting
an agonized glance at his wife—and the sage stepped forward, throwing back his
hood and holding up a palm in answer to Mardone’s. “I am Manalo.”
am Mardone,” the shaman said in answer; then, “What do you here? Know you not
this is a woman’s place and time?”
too, am a shaman,” Manalo answered.
sent by Lomallin!” The cry ripped loose from Ohaern, and Ryl looked up,
startled, and in sudden hope.
heard Lomallin’s call some days ago,” Manalo acknowledged, “and came because he
had left the knowledge in me that a woman of the Biri people would be in pain.”
can you do that we cannot?” Mardone demanded.
nothing,” Manalo admitted, “but then, perhaps a great deal. May I touch the
glanced at Ryl, who gave a frantic nod. Mardone looked up at the woman’s
nodded, handed Ohaern his staff, and went to kneel by Ryl.
was amazed at the feeling of calm that seemed to flow into him from the sage’s
staff. Suddenly, he could bear to watch Ryl’s pain as she screamed again, watch
it with less fear, for he knew somehow that she would live.
laid his hands on her distended abdomen, gazing off into space as his fingers
seemed to walk over the taut flesh by themselves. His voice was distant as he
said, “The child is tangled in the cord; it pulls her back when she seeks to
eyes widened. “How could you know that?”
see with Lomallin’s eyes,” the sage answered, his voice gaining life even as he
spoke. He came from the trance and turned to Mardone. “The child is so wound
about that the whole length of the cord is taken up, and it pulls against the
womb as the woman’s body squeezes.”
poor lamb!” Mardone cried. “But how can you save them?”
this.” The sage took from his cloak a long slender rod with a small blade on
the end. “We must cut the cord before the child is born—but I must reach up
inside to do it, and it must be I, for I must look as I did even now.”
stared at him, her pride in her own reputation warring with her concern for
Ryl. Finally, she nodded, and Ohaern breathed a sigh of relief.
I the father’s permission?” the sage asked.
is well.” Manalo nodded. “But you must go outside the lodge, Ohaern. You may
not be anxious for compulsion,” Manalo told him. “If she dies, you may tear me limb
from limb then—and there is only the one door.”
bowed his head and went.
as he passed through the door, Ryl screamed again. Ohaern forced his feet to
keep on walking, his eyes to keep looking forward.
he was out in the clean, dark chill again, filling his chest with the night
air. He shivered, but not from the cold, then looked up at the stars and
breathed a prayer of thanks to Lomallin.
scream rent the night again, then again and a third time—but after that the
shrieks merged into groans that came again and again, punctuated by Mardone’s
voice calling encouragement. The hide door rustled, and Manalo stood beside
him. “The babe is engaged as it should be,” he said. “It will not be much
longer, perhaps an hour.”
did not ask what the sage meant by “engaged,” he only said fervently, “I thank
you with all my heart, Manalo!”