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To Cut an Edge

AS AGREED, he was lost.

He was, in fact, a good deal more lost than he wanted to be. It took him several seconds to realize that the continent overhead was not the one he’d secretly studied for—followed quickly by the realization that it was not even the world he’d expected.

He’d crammed for oceanic Talanar, a planet quite close to the studies he’d been urged to make by his elders. This world was . . . ?

What world was it, after all?

Determining fall-rate overrode curiosity for this present. He located a magnetic pole and arranged to have the ship orient thus, then began a preliminary scan of—well, of wherever it was—as he slowed rotation smoothly and watched the screens.

Air, good. Water, probably drinkable. Gravity, a bit heavier than the training planet: within ten percent of Liaden gravity. Preliminary scan established that this could be any of three or four hundred worlds.

His ship was moving in, as it must. It had been dropped by an orbiting mothership, a carefully timed burst of retros killing its orbital speed. If he worked very hard and was very careful, he could keep the tiny craft in orbit, but that meant immediate expulsion, no appeal, unless he could demonstrate equipment failure . . .

Instead, he nursed the strictly limited fuel supply by using only attitude jets, and hurried the computer a little to give him potential range.

Three hours before he hit serious atmosphere. After that, depending on his piloting skills and local weather conditions, he might be in the air for an hour. The world below would turn one and a half times before he landed. He wondered what Daria would have thought—

And quashed the thought immediately. Daria was dead, killed in the drop from the mothership, victim of a freakish solar storm. It had been stupid of them to be so involved, of course. Stupid and beautiful.

Daria was months dead now, and Val Con yos’Phelium would be a Scout. Not partnered, as they’d promised so hastily, protected against all unnamed and unbelieved disasters by the strength of each other’s arms. Not partnered. But a Scout, nonetheless.

After he passed the test.

He considered the readouts. There were cities down there, yet not so closely huddled that there weren’t plenty of places to land a quick, slender craft. His instructions: achieve planetfall; learn the language, customs, life-forms; survive for six Standard months and sound Recall. This was not the final test, after all, but merely a preliminary. Pass this, then the true Solo and, behold! Scout. Simplicity itself.

He shook his head and began the second scan. Optimism, he chided himself half-seriously, is not a survival trait.

HE SET DOWN in the foothills above an amber valley where fields and possible houses lined a placid river.

Grounded, he initiated the final pre-scan, whistling indifferently. His instrument of choice was the omnichora. A portable—gift from his fostermother on the recent occasion of his seventeenth Name Day—was packed away with the rest of his gear.

It was remarkable the ’chora was there at all. Test tradition was that a cadet carried no tech-gear during prelims, except for that equipment found in a standard kit. However, those who had him under their eyes understood that to deprive Val Con yos’Phelium of the means of making his music for a period of six months, Standard, would be an act of wanton inhumanity. It had been debated hotly within the council of instructors, had he but known it. He knew only the end—that the ’chora was aboard the test ship and that his immediate superior took care to comment that music was communication, too.

Sighing, Val Con studied the results of the scan. Air, a bit light on oxygen, but not enough to present problems. Microbes, nothing to worry him there. Scout inoculations are thorough. Soil samples showed levels of copper, iron, a shade too much sulfur. No harmful radiations. In fact, it was going to be rather dim outside.

Hull temp read orange: too hot for exit.

He stretched in the pilot’s chair and released the web of shock straps. Asking the rationboard for a cup of hot tea, he stood sipping, trying to damp the surge of excitement that threatened, now he was really here.

Wherever “here” was.

He grinned suddenly. What did it matter? It was a Scout’s task to discover such things, after all! This was what he had been trained for. More fool he, cramming for a world lightyears distant, when he could have been . . . been sleeping.

Resisting the urge to tell the temperature display precisely what he thought of its arbitrary limitations, he bent down, opened the crew locker and brought out two bundles.

The first was his ’chora, wrapped in oiled yellow silk. His fingers caressed it through the fabric as he set it aside.

The second bundle was wrapped in black leather and clanked when he hefted it. He settled back on the floor and twisted the clasps, pulling out a broad belt, also of black leather, hung about with objects.

A Scout must wear a complete belt-kit at all times.

He looked at the heavy thing with deep resentment. Complete? If he came to require local currency, he need only open a hardware concession. Oh, some of them made sense: pellet gun, machete, rope. But a flaregun? Pitons? Surely, if there were mountains to climb, one would know in sufficient time to prepare oneself?

Ah well, regulations are regulations. And if any of the several things he judged useless were not on his belt, should a proctor turn up, he would flunk on the instant.

Sighing, he began the kit-check.

Pellet gun: OK.

Flaregun: OK.

Machete: What can go wrong with a machete? OK.

Stick-knife . . . He smiled and flipped it open to reveal the strong, dainty blade. The stick-knife was pleasing. He found knives in general pleasing, and had studied their construction during his so-called spare time, even attempting to craft a few. The most successful of these was a plain steel throwing blade, which, of course, was not with him at the moment. The stick-knife was not for throwing, but for surprise and efficiency in close, desperate situations. He flicked his wrist, vanishing blade into hilt.

Stick-knife: OK.

A Scout’s belt-kit is comprehensive. By the time Val Con finished his check the orange temperature light had gone out.


He rose and tidied the ship while drinking a mug of tea, checked the monitors, buckled on his kit and went out.

It was dim, like a day threatening downpours on his own bright world, and sultry. A breeze blowing from the south brought a medley of unfamiliar odors with it. He sniffed appreciatively and paused to pick an old reed from the side of the path.

Six days had seen many accomplishments. His eyes had adjusted to the lower light level, even as his body rhythms had reached an acceptable compromise with the overriding song of the world. Sensors had been set out and calibration programs begun. The log was up-to-date.

His failure lay in contacting the people.

Not that there weren’t people. On the contrary, there were at least two hundred individuals living in the valley at the end of this path, though the count was necessarily approximate. He found it difficult to differentiate at distance between one large-shelled person and another. Given variation in shell size, person size, decoration and harness, individuality would eventually come through; but it would be a slow process. Worse, he had yet to find one single person who would speak with him—or even acknowledge his presence.

He’d tried all the approaches he’d been taught—and several he’d invented on the spur of the moment—angling for any response at all.

And had been roundly ignored.

Yesterday, he had boldly stepped in front of a group of three, bowed low, as he had seen those small-shelled or shell-less bow when addressing those more magnificent than themselves. The group split and detoured around him, unhurriedly, but with determination.

The path wound around an outcropping of rock and sloped toward the caves and valley floor. Val Con stopped to survey his prospects, idly twirling the reed.

Across the valley, people were about what he now perceived as their daily business. Four individuals were in the fields along the river, working among the growing things with long-handled tools vaguely reminiscent of hoes. Toward the center, a cluster of eight? ten? large persons was engaged in a certain choreographed activity, which could have been dancing, game-playing or military drill. Across the river, large greenish shapes moved among the hulking rounded stones—dwelling places, so he thought: The town itself.

Just downhill from him now, though somewhat distant from the caverns and convenient to a nice flat rock, was a very large individual with sapphire glinting randomly from the tilework of its shell. With it were four small people, shell-less, and bumbling in a way that shouted children to him. The largest was scarcely taller than he.

It is dangerous to approach the young of an isolate and perhaps xenophobic people—or, indeed, of any people. But Val Con’s observations indicated that he could easily outrun the adult, should it attempt an attack, and children are often curious . . .

So thinking, he walked down into the valley and sat atop the flat rock.

The guardian glanced his way, but turned its back, making no move to herd the smaller ones away. Encouraged, he crossed his legs and settled in to watch.

They were definitely children. They played tag, fell on each other, crowed loudly and shouted shrill, unintelligible taunts. Entertaining, but not particularly productive. The guardian still ignored him, and he nurtured a small flame of optimism as he felt in the belt for the stick-knife.

Best to put waiting to work, he thought, quoting one of his uncle’s favorite phrases. Slowly, attention mostly on the schoolroom party, he began to fashion the reed into a flute.

It was the first time he’d attempted such a thing, though he had read how it might be done, and he did not give it primary concentration. This may have accounted for the woefully off-key sound that emerged when he finally brought the flute to his lips and blew.

He winced, and blew again; moving his fingers over the holes to produce a ripple of ragged sound. His fourth attempt yielded something that could charitably have been called a tune, and he glanced up to see how the nursery was taking the diversion.

The guardian stood yet with its back to him, watching as three of the babies enjoyed a rough-and-tumble of wonderful ineptitude.

The fourth was looking at him.

Val Con brought the reed up and blew again, trying for the simple line of a rhyming game from his own childhood. The child took a step forward, away from its quarreling kin, toward the rock. Val Con repeated the rhyming song and began a hopeless rendition of the first ballad he had learned on the ’chora.

Fortunately, the baby was not critical. Val Con abandoned the attempt to wring structured music from his instrument and, instead, created ripples of notes, interlocking them as it occurred to him; playing with the sound.

The baby was right in front of him.

He let the music fade slowly; raised his head and looked into enormous golden eyes, pupils cat-slit black; let his lips curve into the slightest of smiles. And waited.

“D’neschopita,” announced the child, extending a three-fingered hand.

“D’neschopita,” repeated the Scout, copying inflection and pitch. He extended his own hand, many-fingered as it was.

A hand larger than either swooped out of nowhere, snatching the child from imminent contact, sparing for his abductor one withering glare from eyes the size of dinner plates. It dragged the protesting infant away, holding forth in a loud and extremely displeased voice.

Nurse, Val Con decided, shoulders drooping. Don’t touch that, he translated freely, giving his imagination rein, you don’t know where it’s been! It could be sick! Whatever it is. And look how SOFT it is! Probably slimy, too. Yuck.

He raised the flute and blew a bleat of raucous wet sound.

The big one spun, moving rather more rapidly than observed in others of her race, dropping the baby’s hand and raising her arms.

Val Con grinned at her. “D’neschopita,” he said.

She hesitated, lowered her arms slowly, and spun again reclaiming her charge roughly and driving the other three before toward the safety of the center valley.

“TO CONCLUDE,” intoned the Speaker for the Trader Clan, “White Marsh feels that the Knife Clan of Middle River owes in the form of information regarding routes of star-trade. This, because the Knife Clan neglected to locate the being known as Silver Mark Sweeney and deliver the knife he commissioned, thereby denying the Trader Clan its fee of information, for sending this business hither.”

There was silence as the T’car digested the whole of the Trader Clan’s message. Out of the silence, Eldest Speaker’s dead-leaf voice: “Will you make answer, T’carais?”

The person so addressed stood away from the bench and inclined his head to the Elders in respect.

“It grieves me,” he began, “that the Trader Clan of White Marsh would come before the T’car entire, citing wrongs, before they came to the Knife Clan and requested facts. However, it is done, and answer shall be made.

“It is fact that the Trader Clan brought Silver Mark Sweeney to the Knife Clan, from which he commissioned a blade appropriate to his size. We accepted the task, seeded the cavern and encouraged not one, but many knives of a size and shape that would be fitting to beings of Silver Mark Sweeney’s order. In the fullness of time, the blades were ready and the Knife Clan caused a message to be sent as instructed by Silver Mark Sweeney, stating this.

“He did not come to claim his knife.”

“It was the responsibility of the Knife Clan to search—” began the Trader Clan’s Speaker, with lamentable haste.

The T’carais raised a hand, reminding that it was his time now to speak, and continued in the midst of the new silence.

“The Knife Clan searched. And, when it was found that our manner of search is not efficient among the stars, we employed a skilled tracker of the Clans of Men to perform this task for us.” He paused to consider how best to proceed. The Elders, wise beyond saying, were old. They did not always recall that to those yet mobile, change was . . .

“You must remember,” he said diplomatically, “how short-lived are the members of the Clans of Men. Where I engaged one to search, his heir reported failure to me, as his father had grown too feeble to travel. It was the belief of these trackers—and also myself—that while we encouraged and refined the blade, Silver Mark Sweeney achieved s’essellata and died.

“Thus, I commanded that the family of Silver Mark Sweeney be found, that the blade might be placed into the hands of his kin. Time passed, and when the first tracker’s heir came to me again, he leaned heavily upon his own heir . . .”

The T’carais sighed gustily.

“It seems that Silver Mark Sweeney was both kinless and clanless, as is not uncommon among that family of the Clans of Men named ‘Terran’.” He paused; signed summation.

“And so the knife is undelivered and the Trader Clan is bereft of its fee. It is to be considered that the Knife Clan had also considerable investment in this venture. There is an entire room filled with blades refined, awaiting only handles and sheathes, all too small for our use.”

He inclined his head to the Elders. “Thus does the Knife Clan answer.”

There was a large quiet while the Elders conferred silently, after the manner of the very old. In time, Eldest Speaker’s voice was heard.

“It is seen that the Trader Clan has come before the full T’car to state its concerns and to give notice of intention to make formal complaint, should there be no balance forthcoming from the Knife Clan.

“It is seen further that the Knife Clan erred in failing to teach the Trader Clan its attempt at solution.

“Thus, it is the decision and will of the T’car that the T’carais of the Knife Clan go to the T’carais of the Trader Clan and speak as egg-kin, seeking to resolve all equitably. If this is not done, then shall the T’car make disposal.” She paused, and all awaited her further words.

“It puzzles the T’car that the Knife Clan so hastily encouraged an entire cavern of blades fit only for those of the Clans of Men. However, there has been no complaint made of this, and no judgment is made.

“The matter in this phase is ended. All may go.”

HE WOKE SOBBING, the echo of his cry still shuddering the metal walls.

“Daria! Daria, untrue!”

But it was true.

Painfully, he pulled air into laboring lungs, stilled the sobs and straightened from his cramped coil of grief.

Local midnight, by the chronometer on the board. He slid out of bed, dressed deliberately, buckled on the kit, and moved to the door. At the threshold, he bethought himself, turned back to the rationboard and withdrew several bars of concentrated food, which he stuffed into his pouch. His eye fell on the flute he’d made that afternoon and he picked that up, too, thrusting it into his belt as he went out into the night.

There were people abroad in the valley: farming, drilling, and in general about their business under the wan light of the two pinkish moons as if it were full daylight.

Val Con paused to stare out over all this activity and finally proceeded, shrugging.

The path deserted him at the base of the hill and he paused once more, this time because he heard the sound of large persons approaching, talking among themselves.

He hid in the shadow of a sundered boulder and let them go by: a group of three, well-shelled and carrying large objects—containers of some sort, he thought.

They entered the caverns purposefully, the boom of their voices echoing back.

After a moment, Val Con followed.

THE BROODMOTHER STOOD away from the bench in the waiting chamber and inclined her head as he approached.

“T’carais. A word with you?”

Not now, he thought, still rankling from Eldest Speaker’s criticism. Hasty, am I? When all with eyes must see that the Clans of Men will give us profit, perspective—

He became aware of the Broodmother still standing, her head bent in respect and put irritation aside.

“Of course. Come within.”

He sat upon the bench of office and indicated that she should sit, as well.

But this, in her agitation, she did not do, instead merely stood and gazed mutely up at him.

“What concerns you?” he asked in some puzzlement. Whatever failings she possessed, nervousness was not counted among them. “Are the egglings unwell?”

“They are well, T’carais. At least—” She paused, marshalling words. “It is that—thing, T’carais. The little, black—soft—thing . . .”

He signed understanding. Reports of this one had reached him from other sources, all annoyed.

“It—the T’carais’amp . . .”

This could not continue. “Please tell the tale clearly, Broodmother. Do you say that the T’carais’amp is endangered?”

“I do!” she cried, knotting her fingers together. “It—the soft thing—came out of the hills today and sat upon the stone at the base of the L’apeleka field, a short distance from the egglings and I, and seemed busy with something or another in its—its hands.” She paused to collect herself.

“Then, it began to make noises—horrible noises, T’carais, high-pitched and whining—just as the three youngest began a fight among themselves, which I of course had to attend to . . .”

“Of course,” he agreed, since this seemed required.

“When I looked around, the T’carais’amp was—was at the rock, holding out his little hand. And that—thing held out its hand and was going to—going to touch him!” Again she took a time to return to composure.

“I snatched him away, T’carais, and was hurrying back to the others when—it hissed at me, T’carais!”

This was new. “Hissed at you? By all descriptions, this is but a member of the Clans of Men. I do not recall having heard one of this family hiss . . .”

“Well, perhaps it was not itself that hissed. It was—holding a reed, T’carais, and I believe that it somehow caused the reed to hiss at me. When I turned to protect the T’carais’amp, it bared its teeth and said ‘D’neschopita’!’”

This was apparently the awful whole, for she unknotted her fingers and stood with head bowed, awaiting his judgment.

It bared its teeth and cried “Pretty”? Odd and odder.

The T’carais had travelled much and judged most of the members of the Clans of Men harmless, if hasty. Their music had a certain charm, their actions a touch of madness bordering on art. Certainly there seemed to be no lasting harm in this one.

“I judge,” he said, using the formal intonation, “this individual to be rude and inconsiderate, yet not dangerous. If it frequents the area on the edge of the L’apeleka field, then take the egglings elsewhere for their outings. I will investigate it myself, to ensure it is not of that family called Yxtrang, though its behavior has not been consistent with the nature of that line. If it is not, then we must merely tolerate it for a shell or two. It will soon be gone.”

He gentled his voice, “It is not worth troubling yourself over, Broodmother, I promise you,” and signed dismissal.

With this she had to be content. She had asked and the T’carais had judged. Better she had slain the soft thing this daylight and endured words of reprisal than this—this empty assurance that something so repulsive was no danger to the children.

Unconvinced, she made obeisance and left the hearing chamber.

HE DID NOT understand how he came to be lost. The cavern was dark; but his ears were as sharp as his sense of direction. Those he followed made no pretense of stealth. There should have been no difficulty.

And yet there had. His guides were a little distance ahead, rounding a corner. Moments later, he rounded the same corner—or, as he thought now, not the same corner—and found himself alone in a dark his eyes were unequipped to penetrate.

He stopped, eyes half-closed in the blackness, listening.

Silence, in which his breath rasped.

His nose reported the dry, musky scent characteristic of shelled people, but not with an immediacy that encouraged him to believe any stood near.

Well and good. He pulled the lantern from his belt and thumbed the beam to low, careful of any dark-seeing eyes that might, in spite of his certainty, be watching.

He stood in a pocket of stone, high-roofed and smooth. It was well that he had stopped where he had: another half-dozen of his short strides would have run him nose-first into the endwall.

The wrong corner, indeed. He pivoted on a heel, playing the beam over the floor, but the dustless stone showed no tracks.

Well, there at least was the bend in the corridor. Best turnabout and walk out . . .

HE WALKED FOR twenty minutes by his inner clock, fully twice the time he had walked in behind his guides. Stopping, he played his light around the room in which he stood. It was so vast a place that the mid-beam did not even nibble at the dark along what he imagined must be the walls. The floor was littered with boulders and smitten columns of stone.

He spun slowly in place, running the beam about the room. This is absurd, he thought. I don’t get lost.

Still, he had to admit that he did seem to be lost. It was clear that he would succeed only in becoming more lost if he continued on his guideless way.

It is possible, he told himself kindly, that you have done something just a bit foolish.

He sighed and pushed the hair off his forehead.

People did come into the caverns, though it was true that he did not know the schedule of these visitations. Food and water he had—even fresh water, he amended, ears catching a silvering cascade in the dark to his right—and the torch would provide light for months. The wait would no doubt be tedious, but hardly life-threatening, and if he got bored he could use his fishline and markers to map the caverns.

Shrugging philosophically, Val Con sat down and waited to be found.

THE DUTIES OF a T’carais are myriad; the duties of the senior-most Edger many. Happily, several overlapped, so that a visit to the caverns was both present joy and remembered bliss.

He crossed the threshold into First Upper Way, noting that three of his kin—Handler, Selector and Lader—had passed this way but recently.

Around their scents, and as recent, was the odor of something vaguely spicy and somewhat—furry? The T’carais puzzled as he went on. It was like and yet unlike a scent he knew, though not one usually found within the caverns.

An oddity. No doubt all would come clear in time.

Scent told him that his kinsmen had turned down the Second-Full Corridor. They were beginning the harvest of the Lower Ninth Room, then. Good. The T’carais had great plans for that particular crop.

He turned into Third New Way and shortly into Fifth Cavern but One.

The newest crop was good, he noted, well pleased. Only fourteen had been encouraged beyond the strength of the crystal to endure. If only half of those remaining harkened to his own tutelage, it would be a superior harvest, indeed. Seeder had done well. Nurturer had excelled herself. He would commend them.

It was then that he heard the sound.

And what a sound! Thready and fulsome by turns: abrading. Fascinating.

Music, the T’carais understood after a moment. Though of what sort he could not have said, since it bore little resemblance to any he had heard in all his long life.

But whatever kind of music it was, it was absolutely forbidden within the caverns.

With one more glance at the precious, fragile blades, the T’carais went in search of the sound.

ITS SOURCE WAS in the Seventh Old Storeroom, sitting in a glowing pool of energy, many-fingered hands holding something to its mouth.

The T’carais stopped in horror, mentally assessing the damage of so much energy on the infant blades, two levels above. Then he realized that part of what he beheld was merely harmless radiant energy. The force generated by the musician, while more substantial than one would expect from so small a being, was well below the danger level.

He approached the intruder.

Who glanced up, dropped its hands and rolled to its feet with amazing suppleness, whereupon it performed the bow of youngling to elder and straightened, awaiting his pleasure.

An eggling, thought the T’carais, astounded.

Of all who had complained, none had said that the intruder was but an eggling. He remembered, then, the disconcertment this particular eggling had caused members of the Knife Clan, not to mention unleashing harmful energies in the vicinity of growing blades, and stiffened his soul. Withholding any indication of regard for his petitioner, he studied it at his leisure.

It was somewhat smaller than those of the Clans of Men he had previously known, and ridiculously thin. Also, it had no fur on its lower face, though a profusion upon its head, dark brown in color. It was dressed in garments of black leather over another long-sleeved garment of some softer stuff: garb worn by many men, especially those who travelled between stars. Around this one’s middle was a wide belt, hung with a confusion of objects.

The T’carais returned his attention to the face, seeing that it was small; looking as if one of his kin had taken a nugget of soft golden ore and used a knife to plane off five quick, angular lines, finishing the work by setting two crystals of the most vivid green possible well back among them, shadowed by long lashes and guarded by straight, dark brows.

The T’carais deigned to speak. “Egglings are not permitted here,” he said sternly, and in Terran, so there should be no mistaking his meaning.

One of those straight brows twitched out of line with its brother, as the master of them both looked down at itself, and then back up.

“I am sure that to one of your own magnificence,” it said softly, and with a lilt to the words that fell oddly on the ear, “it must appear that I have not yet achieved adulthood. However, I must insist that I am not an—eggling—but a man grown.”

An absurd eggling. But not one of those called Terran, by testimony of the way he spoke that family’s tongue. The T’carais took thought.

“What is your Clan?” he inquired, this time in the tongue called Trade, which was easier to form.

“Korval,” returned the other, obediently following into that language. “And your own?”

And an impudent one. Then the T’carais recollected that, in his consternation, he had presumed to take a member of another Clan to task for misconduct—eggling or adult. And to do this without proper introduction was a far greater impudence than he had now been offered.

“I am called,” he said austerely, “in the short form used by the Clans of Men on those things called visas, Eleventh Shell Fifth Hatched Knife Clan of Middle River’s Spring Spawn of Farmer Greentrees of the Spearmakers Den: The Edger. Among those of men I have met,” he added, “I am known as Edger.”

The small one bowed, acknowledging, the T’carais supposed, the greatness of the name.

“I am called, in the longest form thus far available: Val Con yos’Phelium Scout.” He glanced up, both brows out of true. “Among those of men I deal with, I am known as Val Con.”

The T’carais was charmed. Merely an eggling, after all—he recollected again the damage the creature had done the peace and harmony of the Clan and strengthened his soul once more.

“This,” he said sternly, deliberately neglecting the name he had been given, “is the place of the Knife Clan of Middle River. Egglings and adults of other Clans are not permitted here, save by special invitation, and with a member of the Clan. You are trespassing. Further, you have endangered the blades by the energies unleashed in playing your eggling music. You are fortunate, indeed, that you chose to do this in a section of the caverns that is at rest, for you might have ruined an entire crop had you chosen to play in a room that was seeded.

“I am angry that you are here, but because I see you are ignorant, I will raise no complaint to the T’car. Now begone.” He folded his arms over his armored chest and glared at the little creature.

Who sighed, and glanced down at the reed in his hand. He seemed markedly uncowed by Edger’s avowed anger, and did not smell of fear. When he raised his face he was smiling, as men call it, though very slightly.

“I am sorry,” he said slowly, “about the music. It is a new instrument for me and I am afraid I did miscraft it. I did not know the playing was of such poor quality that it would ruin a crop of blades.” He paused, vivid eyes intent. The T’carais kept his countenance unyielding, and said nothing.

“Where I am from,” continued Val Con yos’Phelium Scout, “knives are made of iron and steel and light. I have made a few of the first two myself, though I am a novice. It would interest me greatly to learn how your knives are formed.”

“You might have had the privilege,” the T’carais said with deliberate cruelty, “but you chose to cast it away from you and enter without permission.”

“And how was I to ask permission,” wondered the impudent one, “when there is no person I have found in the valley who will speak to me?”

“Foolish eggling! Do you expect persons of consequence to speak to one to whom they have not been introduced?”

The small one took time to consider this, eyes on a rock at his feet. He looked up.

“You are.”

Had he been capable of it, the T’carais would have gaped. As it was, he merely moved his head from side to side, slowly, before speaking with great care. “This is a different matter. Your noise endangered the blades. I am T’carais. Of course I must speak, that I might command you to cease.”

“Ah,” said the other. “I understand.”

Edger thought that perhaps he did and was not comforted. Sternly, he said, “I have ordered you to begone.”

“Yes,” Val Con agreed readily, “and I would like to comply. But I am lost. It’s stupid of me, but my sense of direction seems to have gotten misplaced, and I can’t find my way out.” He slanted bright eyes upward. “I did try.”

Absurd that a being so frail should have so much life in it.

“Very well,” said the T’carais stiffly. “I shall escort you to the cavern door.”

“Thank you,” said the other with a bow. “I am grateful for your kindness.” He bent to retrieve the lantern and straightened, face thoughtful.

“I have just considered . . . Will it be dangerous for the blades to encounter light? If so, I must ask if I might hold to your harness as we go. My eyes are too poor to see here . . .”

Edger was touched, both by the eggling’s care and the grace with which he accepted his limitation.

“You may keep your light at that level,” he said gruffly. “The blades will not suffer from it.” He turned, heading back the way he had come. “Follow.”

In keeping with his judgment, the T’carais led his charge by a route that avoided the growing rooms and, in due time, they reached the cavern mouth.

Outside, he turned, meaning to leave wordless, as was proper.

“Edger,” called the small one, who appeared to have no shame.

Reluctant, the T’carais turned back. “I hear.”

He had clipped the lantern onto his belt and stood now, hands out, palms turned up. “You have been very kind and it’s true that I am grateful. In spite of this, I feel I must ask for yet another kindness.” He took a breath and plunged hastily on. “Would you please introduce me to some of your Clan members? I have come to learn about you—your language and your ways—and it would be much easier if someone would speak with me . . .”

Was he a scholar, then? The T’carais was uncertain of the word “scout.”

“What you ask may be possible,” he conceded. “I will consider it. However, a decision will not be made this moon’s phase, for I leave tomorrow moontime for a visit to another Clan.” He paused.

“Perhaps it would be wisest for you to go someplace else. Or, if you must stay here, to avoid the egglings. You frighten them.”

Once again that ironic glance down at his soft self, the straight look into Edger’s face.

“I think that, beside yourself, the egglings are the only people I have seen here who are not frightened of me.”

This eggling was out of reason perceptive. Edger turned away, speaking the wellwish.

“K’mentopak, eggling. Be you well.”

“K’mentopak, T’carais,” came the soft reply. “My thanks to you.”

VAL CON STRETCHED taut in the pilot’s chair and relaxed, abruptly boneless. The log was once more up-to-date.

He considered the T’carais, grinning as it occurred to him to wonder if that person thought him Terran. There were those of that long, burly race who would not be best pleased by that. Though, to be fair, the general configuration was the same. And perhaps, from a height of nearly nine feet, a seven-foot person and a five-foot one are both merely small.

Knives. Growing knives? They had passed nothing that looked to his untutored eyes to be blades a-growing on their way out of the cavern last night. Of course, Edger had said he might not, as punishment. Possibly, the T’carais had chosen a route that bypassed such wonders.

But growing? And sensitive to—energies—created by music, but not the everyday radiant variety?

What sort of energy, he wondered, nourishes a sense of direction?

A senseless question, certainly: A sense of direction was nothing but itself.

Or was it?

He snapped to his feet; moved to the center of the ship.

Planetary north, he told himself; turned on his heel, pointing.

East. A smaller turn.

South . . .

West . . .

Home. Standing tall, arm raised, finger indicating that area in the Fourth Quadrant where turned the planet Liad.

Sense of direction back on duty, sir.

And where had it been last night? He lowered his arm slowly. Music, but not light. A man lost, who never misses the way. Blades growing out of ancient rock . . .

A sense of direction is a low-level psychic phenomenon.


Not psychic—a skill anyone might learn, subject to the physics of the universe . . .

Two strides to the storage locker and the ’chora within, still shrouded in yellow silk. He set it on the table and pulled the cloth away, exposing its smooth newness.

This was an expensive portable, far superior to the one he had owned formerly. He had lately had neither heart nor joy to play, but now he flipped the power on; hands flickering over the stops, setting values and intensities.

Lightly, fingers joking, he played the line of the rhyming game that had so charmed the eggling; drifted into the ballad that had defeated him upon the reed.

Gods, what a beautiful instrument.

What sort of energy is music?

He let his fingers slow; flipped off the power. Eyes still on the ’chora, he lifted the kit and belted it around his waist. Hefting the keyboard by its strap, he arranged it across his back—like a shell, he thought, half-smiling.

He left the ship, whistling.

SOUNDLESS, HE SLIPPED out of the vegetation at the path’s end—blinked and nearly laughed. To his right, three egglings, running hard from a much larger individual. And walking toward him with infant nonchalance, his acquaintance of the previous afternoon.

“Good morning, youngling,” he greeted it in soft Trade. “Will your nurse be angry with me again?”

“D’neschopita,” the eggling told him, with emphasis. “T’carais’amp b’lenarkanarak’ab.”

He lifted an eyebrow and walked forward. “Say you so?” he murmured, keeping his voice smooth. “Well, she is your kin and I must bow to your judgment in the matter.”

At this, the eggling burst into a storm of volubility, emphasized by meaningful blinks of the huge eyes. Val Con shook his head. Too much, too fast, lacking structure . . . Perhaps. He pulled on the ’chora strap, brought the keyboard across his chest; flipped on the power.

The eggling paused for breath, eyes glowing. Val Con moved his fingers over keys, manipulated stops—playing back the rhythm and sound of the child’s speaking, wondering what would happen . . .

A much larger sound interrupted the experiment. He looked up to see the nurse approaching, arms upraised for a strike.

The ’chora! Instinctively, he bent forward, shielding the instrument with his body; tensing his shoulders to take the blow . . .

Which did not fall. Instead, she stood over him and loosed an ear-ringing tirade, no doubt listing his faults and probable bad habits, annotated. Cautiously, he turned his head and looked at her out of the corner of an eye.

The abuse cut off in mid-annotation. Thin chest-armor heaving, she grabbed the eggling by the arm and dragged him away.

Val Con straightened slowly, watching them go. Nurse was in no mood for nonsense, it seemed. She jerked hard on the youngster’s arm when he tried to hang back, roaring something the man felt must be unsuitable for delicate young ears. The youngling bleated and was borne away.

Bully, Val Con apostrophized her, just wait until he’s grown.

Then reaction hit and he collapsed cross-legged to the ground, hugging the ’chora and shaking.

“T’CARAIS, I MUST insist—” the Broodmother’s words proceeded her, reaching Edger as he walked with his brother Handler. He turned ponderously to face her.

“What is it you must insist, Broodmother?”

“That hideous thing must be slain—or banished—or—or—It is dangerous, T’carais—rabid! I cannot, in my duty as Broodmother—”

Edger lifted a hand and she subsided, though not willingly.

“There is new behavior? Something other than we spoke of past moontime?”

“T’carais, I used your counsel and moved the egglings to the other side of the L’apeleka field for this suntime. All was well, I thought, until I looked about—it was back! And alone with the T’carais’amp! Speaking with him!” She stopped a moment, clearly agitated. “I ran to them, T’carais, and I confess that my hand was raised to strike it . . .”

Strike him? The T’carais recalled the man’s absurd frailness. One blow from an outraged Broodmother would shatter him beyond hope of repair. He tasted air.

“Yet you did not.”

“I did not,” she agreed. “For it looked up at my approach, bowed down and stayed thus, very meekly, while I berated it.” She gathered her courage together. “It is evil, T’carais. A danger to the egglings and to the Clan. It must be destroyed.”

“No,” said the T’carais firmly and his brother, Handler, looked at him consideringly. “This is a sentient being, Broodmother. Ignorant, yes. Young, also. But not malicious. The Knife Clan does not kill wantonly. I go now to speak with him, explaining your preference that he stay apart from the egglings. Though,” he added, fixing her with an eye, “it is true that one hungers for children, when one is far from Clan and kin.” He gestured brusquely. She bowed and went.

Edger turned to his brother. “Will you come? If you are to judge in my place while I am absent, it is well you know all whom your words enclose.”

Handler inclined his head. “I was about to beg the honor, Brother.”

THE MUSIC LED them to his seat under the clemktos tree. Halfway across the valley it reached them, full of such force and structure—such power—that the T’carais gave silent thanks the man had not chosen to use this instrument with the caverns.

He had been toying, past moontime, thought Edger. Indeed, what else might one do with music coaxed from a dead stick?

But this—this was in sophisticated earnest. He had not lied when he claimed maturity for himself . . .

The man glanced up as they approached, fingers slowing, stopping on the keys. He set the instrument aside, rolled gracefully to his feet and bowed low.


Edger inclined his head. “Val Con yos’Phelium Scout. I thank you for the gift of music you freely give our land.” He paused. Surely, he was not mistaken? “Why did you not say your whole name to me, when last we spoke?”

The dark brows pulled together. “Forgive me. I meant no insult. It is possible that I do not know my—whole name.” He tipped his head. “I would be pleased to learn it from you.”

Handler blinked. Did the creature ask the T’carais to name it? Impudence.

But his brother took no offense. He merely raised a hand in the gesture that asked grace and told it, “I will think on this. I also consider that which you asked of me last speaking. These things wait upon my return.”

“I understand,” said the small one, folding his hands before him.

“I hear,” then said the T’carais sternly, “that you have again come near the egglings, thus offending the Broodmother. It was my command that you refrain from these things. What say you?”

Handler blinked again. His brother would judge the thing as if it were a Clan member? It is a thinking being, he told himself, laboriously tracing the thought of a T’carais. It has attached itself to the Clan, whatever its alien reason for doing so. Should it thus be slain? Or heard?

The small one sighed. “I tried to obey you, T’carais. I came here because, in all former days, the egglings and their Broodmother kept to the other side of this field. It was accident that I came into the midst of them. And when the tallest eggling came to me and spoke, I thought it would be—rude—if I refused to answer as well as I might . . .”

The T’carais waited.

Val Con shrugged. “As for irritating the Broodmother—T’carais, I must admit that she has irritated me. Twice she denied this eggling and me the joy of acquaintanceship. If she had his best interest in her heart, she would not teach him fear of what is unknown, but encourage his curiosity and interest!”

An opinionated egg—man. And not a word to say that he had been threatened. Did he not know? Or count it too small a thing to mention?

“I hear your answer, and find it holds some merit. I see how this accidental meeting has occurred. The fault is mine and I will make amends. The Broodmother and the egglings will return to their place near the L’apeleka field. You will not go there.”

The small one bowed. “I hear you, T’carais.”

“See that you obey me,” Edger said, with asperity. “Broodmothers are not lightly angered. This one feels you are a threat and a danger. Annoy her further and she may strike you, thus greatly curtailing the span of your years.” He studied the unconcerned green eyes. “Do you understand me, Val Con yos’Phelium Scout?”

“Yes, Edger. I understand you.” He tipped his head. “The T’carais has further orders?”

An exhalation like a small tornado. “A question: You named your Clan Korval. I am not familiar with this line of the Clans of Men. I think you are not Yxtrang—”

Val Con tipped his head back, uttering that sound men call laughter. Glancing up, he raised a hand to push dark fur from bright eyes.

“Not Yxtrang,” he murmured. “Nor Terran, though—” He paused. Trade did not hold an adequate word, so he settled at last for: “she-who-raised-me is. I am Liaden.”

“Ah,” said Edger. “I have met Liadens in the past, though not so many as I have Terrans. It is well. Were you Yxtrang, you would not be allowed to remain.”

Oh, no? thought Val Con. A race that thinks it might order mighty Yxtrang and have it regarded more than mere senseless noise? Interesting.

“Now,” continued Edger, “I have said to you that I will be away for a time. This,” he gestured; Handler stood forward, inclining his head, “is my brother, the T’caraisiana’ab. He speaks with my voice in all things while I am gone. Though you are not of the Knife Clan, you infringe on our territory, and must be remembered in judgment. Also, your skill in music interests me—I make a study of the music of Men, for the joy of my spirit. You may continue your studies, excepting only that you will refrain from studying the egglings and that you are banned from the caverns. If any offer you insult or harm, you must say to them: ‘T’caraisiana’ab e’amokenatek’. This means that you are to be heard and judged by the T’caraisiana’ab. Are you able to say to the words I have told you?”

“T’caraisiana’ab e’amokenatek,” murmured the man, the properly-spoken phrase sounding odd in so soft a voice. He turned to Handler and bowed. “T’caraisiana’ab, I am happy to meet you.”

Handler blinked for a third time, considered as a T’carais might, and inclined his head.

“I am happy to meet you, Val Con yos’Phelium Scout. Please do nothing to endanger yourself while the eldest of my brothers is away.”

Val Con grinned. “I’ll do my best.”

THE SCHEDULE SPECIFIED six ecological surveys of the area.

He took the last sighting from the hill over the valley, made the notation and stashed paper and stylus in his pouch. Stupid thing. They’d made sure he’d learned the tedious, mechanical ways to insure return to a starting point. This was the first time he’d been grateful for the training. There had been no further abandonments by his directional sense, but once burned, twice shy, as his fostermother would say. He would rather not be cut off from the ship in the middle of a wilderness simply because he couldn’t at this present tell his head from his feet.

Stretching, he looked out over the valley—and looked again, more sharply.

A large figure was moving across the open area, using a tall something with which to walk. Val Con leaned against a boulder to watch.

The tall something abruptly became a lance; point gathering the wan light of the moons and dispersing it in glittering ribbons. The figure was Edger, no doubt beginning his journey.

Val Con shifted, took two steps down the path to the valley—and stopped. The T’carais had business to be about, even as he did. Let it be, he told himself sternly.

Yet he stood there, watching until the other reached the edge of the valley and the night hid that large person from feeble eyes.

“Safe journey, Edger,” he murmured in Low Liaden, as one might to a friend. Then he turned sharply, snatched up the directionfinder and moved back down the trail toward the Scout ship. Time for rest, if he wanted an early start in the morning.

IT IS A SENTIENT being, one that obeys the words of the T’carais. If it is in need, it has the right to aid.

Thus had Handler reasoned before starting this small expedition. The man had not been seen for days, and though its absence took tension from the Clan, it also added tension.

Handler was nervous. It was difficult to think with the thoughts of a T’carais, enclosing both broodmothers and men. On his way to the hill path, he stopped to speak with the Broodmother.

“I give you good sun,” he said politely.

“As I give you good sun, T’caraisiana’ab,” she responded, taking the T’carais’amp by the arm and indicating that he should make his bow.

This was done and Handler murmured all things appropriate. Then, “Your pardon, Broodmother, for speaking of a subject that I know is distasteful to you. But—the small, soft being . . . Have you seen i—him recently?”

“No,” she snapped, “nor have I any wish to. It is to be hoped the horrible thing has gone away.”

“D’neschopita,” said the T’carais’amp sorrowfully. “Kanarak’ab.”

The Broodmother was not best pleased by these sentiments. Handler left her trying to interest the T’carais’amp in a game of c’smerlaparek with his younger kin.

HANDLER WALKED AROUND the little ship—constructed, after the manner of the Clans of Men, from soft metal, rather than molded of durable rock. After a complete circuit, he tested the air.

The lingering hint of the human’s spice-furry scent was days old, direction teased by the winds. He came closer to the ship, but the stink of metal masked any other scent that might have been there.

Finally, he lifted a hand and brought it down—gently—on the hull, making it to ring. He waited a time and repeated this, before circling the ship again.

If Val Con yos’Phelium Scout were inside, he was ignoring Handler’s summons.

Well, then, thought Handler, all beings require space apart. Perhaps this is the human’s time of quietude and meditation . . .

He backed away, not quite convinced, but unsure of what else, with propriety, might be done.

It must be for my brother to decide whether we will open the ship of another Clan.

An unsatisfactory solution, but he could think of none better. After a time, he left the quiet clearing and the stinking lump of metal and returned to his house.

THE THIRD MOON was risen; the first waning, when a small, swift figure left the safety of the dwelling-places and crossed the L’apeleka field, unerringly striking the hill path.

This was the way his friend came. The path his uncle the T’caraisiana’ab had taken only last suntime.

With the echo of the wonderful sounds the soft one made in his head, the T’carais’amp ran down the path, coming in time to the clearing and the ship.

He barely paused, only sniffing the air to find his friend’s scent. The ship he ignored—it was far too small, even if it were possible that someone would live in something that smelled so. His friend’s home must be further on.

So he continued—south, with but an occasional wishful hint of his soft friend—and sunrise found him well away from the place of the Knife Clan.

IN SPITE OF the yellow flowers, Val Con made camp in the clearing on the bluff. It was a good place, protected and spacious, with a pool of icy water off to one side, away from the flowers.

He stared at these, hand twitching toward the machete in his belt.

They really are quite beautiful, he offered diffidently; and it is true that Daria would have loved them. Will you spend your life destroying everything Daria might have loved? If so, best start with yourself and let the innocent universe be.

He pushed the hair from his eyes with a sigh and turned away, automatically choosing a place to build his fire. Kneeling, he began to cut a shallow pit, carefully thinking of nothing at all.

Tomorrow, he reminded himself some time later, as he went in search of rocks to line the pit, it’s down the hill and into the flatlands.

Depending on how long it took to find a way around or through the bog, he would be back at the ship tomorrow night or mid-morning the day after.

He spied a flat stone and bent to retrieve it—


Val Con dropped into a crouch, stone forgotten. He stayed utterly still, listening to the echoes of the roar. Nothing he had yet encountered could have produced that noise. Besides Edger’s people, the indigenous life was small, skittish and, for the most part, silent. Even the handful of birds were near voiceless—


Well, he’d been wrong before. And he had the direction of the racket pegged now. He edged toward the bluff, wormed flat among the yellow flowers and peered down.


Closing his eyes, he called up the memory of Clan Korval’s sigil: the full-leafed tree, its faithful winged guardian—He opened his eyes and looked again.


Three of them. All noisy. He winced in protest of this excess of sound and peered closer.

Supper was the point of contention. At least, Val Con supposed that the still lump in the center of the group had been intended as someone’s dinner.

The smallest of the three suddenly moved on the largest, swinging its paw, leading with its teeth. The largest turned a negligent armored shoulder to the attack, swung his own paw across the attacker’s soft throat; used his teeth to thoughtful advantage.

The crunch was quite audible to the man on the bluff, and the littlest dragon slumped and lay still beside its late intended dinner. The largest gathered the disputed item into its jaws and waded off into the bogland, second largest following docilely.

Val Con dropped his chin onto his folded arms. No fire tonight. Perhaps, too, a camp in the rocks instead of the clearing.

Well, at least they don’t breathe fire. I think. No wings. And they aren’t very fast . . .

But they were right in the middle of his projected route home. Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.

RAIN WOKE HIM before dawn. Shivering in the warm air, he rose and cleaned up the campsite. He pulled out a bar of concentrate to eat as he walked and left, heading for the flatlands.

Working with his mental map and sense of direction, he plotted a route that would take him in a long loop around the bogs. It would add half to a whole day to his journey, but that was acceptable, if it insured that he did not become a snack for an eighteen-foot dragon.

When he hit open ground, he stretched his short legs, hoping that the detour was safer than the original route. He was acutely aware of the lack of data concerning dragonish habits.

For all he knew, the things hunted right up to the valley of the Knife Clan. Or, into the valley. What did he know? Maybe there were virgin sacrifices. Maybe dragons sat on the Council of Clans. If there was a Council of Clans. Maybe dragons were pets of Edger’s people. Maybe Edger’s people were—


Oh, damn.

He pivoted slowly on a heel, looking for it. To the east, south, west—clear to the shadowy horizon. Immediately north, his view was cut off by a jumble of rose and gray rock.


Of course. So, then, another detour. He didn’t really have to be back at the ship for another five months or so—

“P’elektekaba!” screamed a voice from beyond the rock.

Val Con ran.

He tore around the rockpile and skidded to a halt, spraying gravel. Directly before him, a squalling eggling, frozen mere feet from the safety of a rock-niche. Further—on treacherous sand—Edger, lance couched and ready, facing the dragon.

In dragons, eighteen feet is small.

Val Con dove forward, hitting the eggling with a surprisingly hard shoulder. The squalling cut out abruptly as the baby sprawled half into the niche. He skittered in the rest of the way to avoid his soft friend, who threw a knapsack at him, yelling, “Stay there!” Had he but known.

The rock-niche was comforting, calling up thoughts of home. He made himself as small as possible and stayed very still.

Val Con ran forward, yanking gun from belt; dropped to one knee and fired. The pellet whistled harmlessly off an armorplate side. The dragon did not even turn its head.

It swung at Edger with a long-taloned claw—withdrawn rapidly as the lance leapt to meet it.

Val Con returned the gun to its loop—worse than useless, not even a diversion, for Edger to move into the throat.

He ran, making a wide detour, fishing the machete from his kit. The tail was half as long as the dragon itself, wickedly armed with Val Con-high spikes.

He brought the machete down. Hard.

The dragon screamed. Encouraged, he swung his weapon again.

And again.

On the eighth blow, the blade shattered and the dragon screamed—close. He looked up, saw the descending jaws, double-toothed and gaping—

Reflex hurled the useless handle into the descending maw, as he snapped backward into a somersault, away from certain death.

Teeth clicked as he rolled away and Edger cried out, “A’jliata!”—the rest of his words eaten by another dragonish shriek.

Val Con snapped tall, whirling back—

Edger was down.

Dodging the whipping tail, ducking a sweeping paw, Val Con reached the T’carais, set his hands against the place where shell met shoulder—and pushed.

He was not strong enough. Edger tipped, tried to get his feet under him, holding to his lance—and the dragon was turning back, paw raised in a gesture the man had seen from its bogland kin.

It meant death, that gesture. It would sweep Edger over, exposing the softer shell across his chest . . .Val Con stepped back, hands dropping from horny shoulders, staring upward as fingers groped in his belt—

Touched—and had it out without fumble.The safety clicked off as the paw swept down, talons first, toward the struggling Edger.

Val Con fired the flaregun into the towering face, his cry echoing the beast’s as the blue-white flash blinded both.

IT IS NOT difficult to dispatch a blinded dragon. One walks up to where it stands clawing at its ruined eyes and cuts the soft throat. It is an act of mercy.

Sentient beings are not allowed this mercy, unless they ask for it, very specifically.

Edger hunkered down before the man called Val Con yos’Phelium Scout, in the fullest form thus far available. The smallness of him as he rocked back and forth, arms folded across his face, touched the spirit with ice.

“Tell me what I may do to aid you,” he begged, feeling ignorant as an eggling.

The small one gave a shuddering sigh. “You are well? It is dead?”

How valiant a being was this! “Yes, Brother,” Edger assured him. “A’jliata is dead. I am uninjured, as is this foolish eggling, my heir.” He paused, then asked again. “But you—tell me what I may do. You are damaged . . .”

Another sigh, less profound. “Only temporary. I think. The light was so bright . . .”

Truth. Edger had been turned away, shielded by his shell, yet the flash had stabbed his eyes.

Val Con dropped his protecting arms and raised his head. The bright eyes were squinted almost shut, and there was moisture running from them, but it appeared that they functioned.

“I’ll be all right,” he said slowly. “It may take a little time for me to be able to see—properly.” He took a breath, moving his head from side to side. “I am sorry to trouble you, T’carais . . .”

Edger was conscious of a tightening of his spirit, in pride. “There is no trouble, Brother. Ask what you might.”

“I was returning to my ship,” Val Con explained, “when I happened upon you. If you could guide me . . .” He shook his head, turning his many-fingered hands up, palm out. “I am sorry to trouble you,” he said again, “but it may take my eyes some days to—to heal . . .”

“There is no trouble,” Edger assured him again. “Are you strong enough to travel immediately? Shall I carry you—I will be careful,” he added, conscious of how easily one might crush a being as small as this new brother.

Val Con smiled wanly. “I can walk,” he said, “though I may need to hold onto—something—and be guided . . .”

“It shall be done,” declared the T’carais, rising to full height. Gingerly, he extended a hand to the small person on the ground.

In a moment, that person also put forth a hand, curling many fingers about Edger’s few, and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.

THEY REACHED HIS new brother’s vessel in the near dark of the third moon. Edger led, leaning upon his lance; the T’carais’amp and Val Con followed, hand-in-hand. The eggling wore the man’s knapsack on his back like a soft leather shell.

Voices carried on the night air: two, raised in disharmony. Edger straightened and lengthened his stride, entering the clearing as a T’carais should.

The Broodmother cut off in mid-lament; bowed as deeply as she was able. His brother inclined his head, reading the weariness in him, but saying nothing, as was his gentle way.

Edger stopped, motioning those behind to come forward.

Hand-in-hand, they did so; stopped before T’caraisiana’ab and Broodmother, waiting.

The Broodmother looked up and resumed her outcry.

“You see what I have told you! It made off with the T’carais’amp, the evil thing!” She turned to Edger, every line of her pleading justice. “Will you not slay it, T’carais? You have seen with your eyes how evil—”

“SILENCE!” bellowed Edger and the Broodmother subsided, blinking rapidly. Handler looked from his brother to the small intruder to the T’carais’amp.

Edger gestured and Handler brought his head up, listening, that he might later recall precisely.

“Let it be known,” the T’carais began, regally, and in the tongue known as Trade, “that this man Val Con yos’Phelium Scout has this day saved the lives of both the T’carais of the Knife Clan and the T’carais’amp, placing his life into peril to do so, when he might have run and been safe.

“Armed with a blade of mere metal he came against A’jliata, suffering pain and possible permanent damage in the service of T’carais and Clan.

“Let it further be known,” Edger continued, “that this person shall come into the Clan as my brother, which he has earned. His name in present fullness shall be stated at the ceremony of adoption.”

He fixed the bewildered Broodmother with his eye, dropping into the only speech she understood. “This person is honored by me, as he will be honored by the Clan, for bravery and service. Know that he alone slew the eldest A’jliata, thereby preserving the line of the T’carais of the Knife Clan. I will hear no further words against him. Do you understand what I have said?”

She lowered her head. “I understand you, T’carais.”

“It is good. Now, take the T’carais’amp and attend him. Later you shall tell me how he came to be in danger!”

The Broodmother came forward, hand extended for her charge, who set up a squall and clung to his soft friend.

Val Con shifted away, prying clutching fingers from his arm. “Gently, child,” he murmured in Trade, “you’ll break me . . .”

The Broodmother added a few quick words of her own on the subject and the T’carais’amp was borne away. Edger looked at his brother Handler.

“Find you our brother, Selector, and choose a worthy blade from the Room of Men.”

Handler inclined his head; turned to the man.

“I am proud to have gained so valiant a brother, Val Con yos’Phelium Scout,” he said formally. Then he, too, went away.

Val Con turned to Edger, brow up. “I do not understand, T’carais. You slew A’jliata—not I. Why honor me?”

Edger blinked. “I hurried what you had contrived. A blind creature in the wild is already dead. I but showed it the mercy one accords a worthy foe. You gave it death with your light.” He slumped, leaning on the lance; it was not necessary to feign tirelessness with this, his brother.

“Will you gather the objects of your name and subsistence, Brother? It is past time that we were home, and I understand men to require some time of sleeping every moontime.”

Val Con stood for a long time, as men measure such things, squinting up at the T’carais. Then he smiled and turned toward the ship.

“I will not be long.”

“So be it,” said Edger, settling to wait. He considered the T’car and sighed gustily.

“Aaii, and they called me hasty anon!”

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