I thought at first I’d post her first view of Rakal by a young mother from Horizon, but I’ve been blogging that for Six Sentence Sunday for six months now. Instead, I picked another piece from War’s End (in the editing stage.) Mik is from Horizon, and is getting his first good look at Central, very early in spring. Kevi was the name Roi used on Horizon. I hope it’s not too long.
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The map looked like any other satellite map, except for the light point that marked Mik’s position, and the way the map rotated in its frame as he moved and changed scale when he ran his finger up or down the side. Handy, actually, ahead was always up on the map. The scale had given him a little problem at first, until Kevi had identified a bar that grew and shrank with the map as showing the distance a horse at a traveling trot could be expected to cover in half an hour. A longer bar was an eight-hour journey, and when he zoomed out to include the whole K’Roi reservation, only that longer bar was clearly visible, and surprisingly small. Kevi hadn’t exaggerated at all on size, Mik decided.
The yellow cross the light was approaching, out behind the stables, was the symbol for a gate. “Let Timi control it going out,” Kevi had said, “and get hold of me with the com if you want to use one.” Too bad Kevi hadn’t told Timi that a little more clearly. What was it with kids that they always assumed they knew more than adults did?
“This one goes to about twenty different points around the Reserve,” Timi was saying as they approached a misty area between two trees. “You use it by visualizing where you want to go, or by thinking a code symbol, or even the name of your destination.”
“Kevi—ah, Roi—said just to follow you and let you worry about setting it,” Mik said, patting Ripple’s neck. Coin was here—Roi had teleported him back from Horizon yesterday, when he’d gone to inform the delegation that Madame Irela was missing, and he’d taken along another telepath to go on the ship that was to transport the rest of the delegation. That ship wouldn’t go missing, or if it did, Kevi would be able to contact the other telepath. If Mik turned his head, he could see his stallion investigating his paddock. But the horse didn’t look as sure-footed as usual, and Mik was inclined to trust Kevi’s advice that it would take the horse a few fivedays to get used to the stronger gravity of Central.
Timi was riding into the mist ahead of him, and Mik reined Ripple after him. “We’re going up, so your ears’ll pop,” Timi called back, and then the mist closed around them. Mik’s ears did pop as the mist briefly hid everything around them. When the mist cleared, Ripple was on a trail through open forest quite unlike anything Mik had seen around the stable. This was hill country, he saw, and he took a deep breath of the chilly air. Just as well Kevi had insisted he dress warmly.
Terry and Kevi had both said that the Horizon ecosystem was incomplete, with many species deliberately excluded. Looking around him, Mik was astounded at the diversity of plant life. More kinds of trees were visible from this one spot on the trail than he knew on all Horizon, and the lower-growing plants were equally variable. Food plants? He thought he recognized a few berry bushes as Ripple trotted by, but it was the wrong season for berries. About half of the trees had shed their leaves, and a good part of the path was sunlit. He looked up, and saw prickly objects on the branches of one otherwise bare tree. “Are those edible?” he asked Timi.
The young man reined in his horse and looked up. “I think Tod said once they were,” he replied doubtfully, “but I don’t get my food that way. There’s plenty of reliable food in the shelter cabins.”
Well, Mik already knew that Timi, though from Horizon, was town-bred. He memorized the look of the tree, noted that it grew on a sunny slope well above a creek they were descending toward, and put a couple of the spiny things from the ground under it into his saddlebags. He might not need food sources, but Tod would. He glanced back at the map, now with a little better feel for what it showed.
Kevi was positive that Tod was in the K’Roi reserve, and reasonably certain that the boy—no, young man now, Mik reminded himself—was somewhere in the foothills of the mountain range occasionally visible to Mik’s left. They had exited the gate near the northern boundary of the reserve, and Mik’s plan was to follow the trail that wound among the foothills to the southern boundary, leaving clear signs of his passage. Thinking of which ….
Mik halted Ripple and dismounted just before the creek, handing her reins to Timi as he searched out several sticks and pebbles. He arranged these to the side of the trail, well above waterline, then took a bit of bright blue ribbon from a bundle in his saddlebag and tied it to a branch over his arrangement. Timi watched in fascination. “What are you doing?” he finally asked.
“Leaving a message for Tod,” Mik replied as he swung back up onto Ripple. When the mare was shod for the trip he’d made certain her shoes were rimmed, to leave clear prints, and he was fairly sure Tod would spot those prints. At least, he would if he was anywhere near the trail, and if there was no hard rain to wash out the prints—a shaky assumption at this season, Kevi had told him. But the cloth flags, near sites where the hoof prints should be clear, would catch Tod’s eye; and the arrangement of stones and twigs carried the message that Mik wanted a meeting. If Tod remembered what Mik had tried to teach him, eight years ago, he’d understand the message.
“No telling where he is,” Mik continued, “but I suspect he’ll be keeping an eye on the main trail. He’ll check for hoof prints where the ground is most likely to hold them—near stream crossings—and that’s where I’ll leave sign. I won’t get a fast response, but by the time I reach the southern boundary he should have found at least one of my markers. Then I’ll head back north—on Coin by then, I hope—and watch for any reply. Walk them up the slope, Timi.”
“Tod always had us keep a steady trot.”
“That’s for conditioning. I want to cover the maximum ground with the minimum wear on the horse. That means walk uphill and down, move out at a lope or a working trot on level ground with good footing, and change diagonals regularly at the trot. You’ve been on the left diagonal ever since we started.”
“Now you sound like Tod,” Timi grumbled. “Is he really as good as he thinks he is?”
“He has a real gift for understanding horses, even by nomad standards,” Mik replied. That was based not only on his memories of Tod, but also on his observations yesterday of the horses and riders his nephew had trained. Kevi might be worried about the clan’s accepting Tod; Mik was not. A few of Domik’s cronies might think Tod was stealing Dom’s place, but that would be short-lived. Mik’s concern was mostly whether Tod had the judgment to make good, reasoned decisions, to stand by those decisions, and—hardest of all—to admit error if changed circumstances proved him wrong. All without losing the confidence of the clan.
Mik shook his head violently, making Ripple flick her ears back in question. He didn’t know if he could live up to that, and the best he could do with Tod would be to determine whether his nephew promised to be an adequate leader. And if Kevi was right, talk him into taking on the burden of leadership.
Eyes and map alike showed a level, gently curving stretch ahead, and Mik automatically cued Ripple into an easy lope. The mare tossed her head eagerly, bringing a burst of sound from the bells on her bridle. Mik looked from side to side as he rode, alert to the woodland around him. A patch of mixed cream and rust caught his attention, and he signaled Ripple for a halt. “What,” he demanded, “is that?”
Timi came up beside him, squinting in the direction Mik was looking. “A foojah,” he replied matter-of-factly. “They eat leaves and shoots—that long neck helps them reach way up. They’re pretty common. It’s a R’il’nian species. Not dangerous, unless you corner one. They’re prey for wolves, bears and akedas.”
“Oh,” Mik said weakly. The animals—there were three, he saw now—were about the height of a horse at the shoulder, but with longer necks. They were creamy underneath and a darker, rust color along the back, and one had a black crest of stiff hairs or feathers atop its head. Wolves, he knew, were the wild ancestors of dogs, but he could not imagine a dog threatening something that size. And the other two species Timi had mentioned …. “How big are the predators?” he asked. “Kevi showed me tri-dees, but there was nothing for scale.”
“Wolves are smaller than a foojah but a lot larger than the pocket herders, and they hunt in packs. A good-sized grizzly would outweigh a foojah. Akedas don’t weigh that much—they’re from R’il’n, too, and closer to birds than mammals—but their heads are higher than a foojah’s back. We don’t have pumas locally—the akedas take their place in the local ecology, Roi says. The warnoffs work against all of them, and there’s a gadget that works the same way that keeps them out of the settled lands and away from the cabins.”
“Warnoffs,” Mik said weakly. Kevi had explained the gadgets to him, but he hadn’t paid too much attention. Seeing the size of the animals the predators preyed on had him wanting more information. “How do they work, again?”
“They send out two messages. One is ‘I’m harmless.’ That lets you observe the animals, but it also keeps them from attacking you as a threat. The second is ‘I’m not edible and I’ll make you sick if you try to eat me.’ That keeps the predators from viewing you as prey. Course neither one is much protection if you startle an animal from too close, so we use the bridle bells to let them know we’re coming.”
Mik nodded. He’d thought of removing the bridle bells so he could hear the sounds of the forest—but not if they were a safety precaution. Timi did know some things better than he did, he reminded himself. He nudged Ripple back into a trot and looked down at the map. “That’s a shelter cabin up ahead, isn’t it?”
“Yes. We’re making good time—ought to be there in an hour. Want to stop there for lunch? They’re all pretty similar, so I can show you how they’re set up.”
He may have his height, Mik reminded himself, but he still has a lot of filling out to do—hardly surprising he thinks a lot about food. Good thing his horse is a weight carrier, though. Most of ours would be too light.
Mik hadn’t quit worrying about Coralie, but the only thing he could do for her was try to find Tod and hope that Kevi could do better than he thought he could with contacting Coralie through Tod. Meanwhile, he might as well learn all that he could about Central. He kept looking from side to side as he rode, and saw two more groups of the foojahs, as well as several smaller animals Timi said were deer. It was close to an hour before he saw something even stranger, and much more frightening. “Is that an akeda?” he asked, but the really didn’t see what else it could be.
It was tall—he doubted he could see over its back if he were on the ground—with a neck that put its head above the height of a horse’s. Half or more of that head was beak, a powerful, crushing beak. Strong legs appeared to be scaly skin over bone, while the body of the creature was covered with dull gold and green feathers—at least, he thought they were feathers—with a fanlike green crest on the head.
“They get a lot brighter during mating season,” Timi said from behind him, “and the males get a sort of train of feathers. They’re really gorgeous then. Roi says they have a lot in common with the terror birds that were on Earth twenty thousand years ago. There’s the cabin.”