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Authors: Christopher Stasheff

The Sage

BOOK: The Sage
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The
Sage

Star Stone Book 2

Christopher Stasheff

1996

This e-book created with a scan by Highroller

 

With thanks to

Peter D'Alessio

 

Chapter 1

The
first stone struck Culaehra in the ribs; something cracked. He cried out as he
doubled over in pain—and wrapped his arms around his head. The rest of the
stones came thick and fast. He ran, his clan chasing, howling obscenities and
throwing rocks. Culaehra cursed them back, even though the sound was muffled by
his forearms as stones struck them, the hurt coming through to his head. He ran
in among the trees, whose branches took the stones and even threw them back.
But one tree caught a rock and dropped it onto his arm, half striking his
skull.

Culaehra
went sick for a moment, stomach pressing upward and feet staggering as the
world swung about him. He blundered into a tree trunk, but he had taken many
such blows before, ever since Ruckhose had slapped him for his interfering—but
Culaehra had come back at him then, kicking him where a blow would disable any
man; and he came back now. His head cleared; he gathered himself, pushing off
from the tree to go lurching on through the forest.

Most
of the voices dwindled behind him, but a few came on—Ruckhose's sons, ever
eager to avenge their father. That by itself would have been only right, but
they might have given a thought to their sister—many thoughts, since it had
been eleven years before! One of their stones caught Culaehra squarely atop the
head, between his upraised arms. It was small, so he only staggered, stomach-sick
and dizzy again—but long enough this time for them to catch up and kick him in
the rear. He shouted in anger and pain and turned on them, dizzy as a newly
wakened bear, and as dangerous. He blundered into them, his fist cracking into
Gornil's head, Nirgol's belly. But the third cousin fetched him a blow with a
cudgel on the back of the head, and Culaehra went down, almost unconscious,
darkness folding about him. He struggled against it, enough to hear old
Dabalsh's voice coming closer. “Enough! You know you can't use any weapons but
one-hand stones in an out-casting!”

“Bastard
swung at us,” Gornil groaned.

“The
more fool you, to get so close! No, leave him—no killing!”

“He
killed our father!” Nirgol grunted from his sore belly— for the hundredth time,
as he ever had for eleven years, and Dabalsh's answer was the same as always.

“He
killed him to save himself, killed him in the middle of an act even the gods
abhor!”

“Whore
indeed,” Gornil snapped. “What's the crime in whoring? Culaehra has made a new
whore, and you don't kill
him
for it!”

“A
woman jilted isn't a whore, and Tambat has already betrothed her, pregnant or
not!”

“The
more fool he,” Nirgol muttered, but without conviction—what was one wife more
or less to Tambat?

“And
the more fool you if you slay a man for a jilting!” Dabalsh's voice began to
fade as he hauled the young men away. “Be off with you now, or you'll bring
down the gods' anger on the whole village! It's for them to say if Culaehra
lives or dies! Be off!”

The
young men bleated protest, but their voices faded as Dabalsh drove them away.
Culaehra lay panting—and hurting. He breathed carefully against the pain in his
ribs—and his head, his arms, his legs, his chest, and his back. He assuaged his
hurts by reflecting with vindictive satisfaction that he had, at least, stolen
and hidden the village treasury, and they would be livid when they discovered
it missing. Hard on that thought, though, came the realization of what the
brothers would do if they came back and found him lying as he was, and
unconscious. The thought shot enough strength into his arms and legs to pull
him in under the low-lying bushes. There he burrowed into the forest mold,
found one last bit of strength to lift a leaden arm and pull leaves down to
hide his body, then lay, trying desperately to cling to consciousness . . .

And
failing.

* * *

Ohaern
moved a hand in a slow and languid caress, and Rahani shuddered, gasping, “Enough!”

“Never
enough,” Ohaern breathed, still caressing.

This
time her answer was a moan. “I thought you had forgotten that game.”

“I
have never forgotten any game you have taught me, my goddess.”

“But
I teach you a new one every day, and it has been decades since we played
that... Ohhhh! Ohaern ... !”

“Decades?
Can it really have been so long?” Ohaern kissed the rounded flesh so gently
that his lips might have been butterfly's wings, so gently as to wring another
groan from her.

“It
has been five hundred years!”

“They
have flown like swifts,” Ohaern breathed, and his breath made her shiver. “Five
hundred, and every day in Paradise! But how could they be else, when my beloved
is my goddess?”

“Foolish
boy.” She caressed under his chin, lifting his face to kiss his forehead
tenderly, gazing adoringly down at his face. “How many times must I tell you that
we Ulin are no gods, but only an older and more powerful race than your own?”

“As
many times as you wish,” he murmured, “for then I hear your voice.” And he made
to move his hand again. But she caught his wrist and held it firmly.

“Enough,
impetuous mortal! Is it not enough indeed? Have I only minutes ago given you
satisfaction, a transport of ecstasy? And you must move me to crave more?”

“Yes,
if I can—for how can any mere man be satisfied, with so infinitely desirable a
woman beside him?”

He
spoke only truth, for Rahani was the most voluptuous of the Ulin, and had been
even when there had been as many of her kind as there now were of humans—and
the least of the Ulin women had been a queen of beauty, in human terms. But if
she had felt the need to choose a human mate—which she had not needed, but had
only desired—surely Ohaern was just such a one as a goddess would have chosen.
Tall and broad-shouldered, with mighty muscles and a face with the strength of
granite but so well-featured that he might even have been called beautiful,
with jet-black hair and golden skin, large eyes and sensuous lips, he was all
that a woman might desire, except that, on earth, he had been straitlaced—but
with Rahani, he was quite otherwise, was unlaced indeed.

“Now,
stop!” She tightened her hand again, but not in time— his caress drew a shiver
from her breast and a writhing from her body. “Nay, my love! I must speak to
you of serious things, and I cannot, if you stimulate desire in me again!”

“What
can be more serious than love?”

“Life
and death!” She would not let his hand go, but lifted her head to look straight
into his eyes, a commanding glance, then a pleading one.

“Death?”
Ohaern stilled. “Have I ceased to please you, then?”

“Never
that.” She softened, and the hand that held his wrist loosed it and lifted to
sweep his hair back from his forehead. “Never could you bore me, Ohaern.”

“You
promised me that if you began to tire of me, you would tell me instantly!”

“Only
because you demanded it of me—for I knew very well that I would never weary of
your company, any more than you would weary of mine.”

“But
you are a goddess, and a woman of infinite variety! Whenever I might begin to
grow accustomed to you, I discover something new about you, some aspect of your
being that I had never suspected before, and fall in love with you anew!”

“And
do you not see that the same is true of yourself?” She caught his chin, holding
his head still so that he could not look away from her eyes—as if he might wish
to!

“There
was never as much to my soul as there is to yours,” Ohaern protested.

“But
daily there is more, for under my tutelage you constantly grow and change,
though you remain forever the same dear, sweet boy I chose of all your kind to
aid Lomallin in destroying Ulahane, thereby serving also me.” She leaned down
to kiss him again. “No, never will I tire of you, Ohaern, for there is ever new
depth to you, even though it is I who must show it.”

“It
is you who make it!”

But
she shook her head. “Learning makes the soul grow, and you have daily learned
more and more of magic from me, yes, and more and more of the way the world and
the universe turn and grow and churn about us.”

“And
daily learned a new facet of Rahani, and a new love-game!” Ohaern smiled and
moved his hand again. She gasped and clasped his wrist. “I have learned how to
please a goddess—but how can there be more of me for you to discover?”

“It
is there within you, and ever was, for you alone of your generation were both
shaman and warrior by nature—and it is both the shaman and the chieftain who
must see what the future holds unless he changes it.”

Ohaern
groaned. “Must we think of the world, then?”

“It
has been five centuries since I bade you do so,” she reproved, and rose,
gathering robes about her out of the very air itself. She stood, gesturing to
clothe Ohaern's loins in a breech-cloth. “Come,” she said, “and look upon the
world as it was, and as it may be.”

He
followed her to the edge of a precipice, knowing it was not real, telling
himself desperately that what he gazed upon was only illusion. Where Rahani
dwelled with him, he did not know, and had come to realize that it was not a
place so much as a state of mind, a dream-realm like that of the shamans, a
dwelling place for the soul—but the world that she chose to show him now was
quite real, and he knew it.

“Gaze
upon the clouds,” she told him, and Ohaern did, watching the mist swirl and
thicken. Its motion held him; his eyes lost focus and seemed to see only a
gray, featureless wash of formlessness. It began to thin, to clear, first as a
hole in the center, then as a widening area of clarity.

He
stared at the face of a stranger, with black hair held back by a copper band,
black moustaches, and a close-cropped black beard. The eyes glittered, and the
mouth opened in a shout as the warrior raised a spear, shaking it. He grew
smaller, and as he did, Ohaern saw that from the waist down he was—a horse!
Instead of neck and head, this horse wore the torso, arms, and head of a human!
And not just one—as the first grew smaller, he saw more and more about him, all
half man and half horse, all shaking spears or bows and shouting! Smaller and
smaller they grew, and as they shrank, Ohaern saw even more of them—and more,
and more! Finally they were so small that they seemed like a field of pebbles,
stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction.

“How
many are they?” Ohaern whispered, awed.

“More
than thirty thousand,” Rahani answered, subdued, and Ohaern stared in shock.

He
had never seen so many men gathered together, never even heard of it! “How?”

“How
do they come to be so many?” Rahani's lips thinned. “Bolenkar came among them,
when they were few and starving, and showed one tribe how to gain food by
killing another tribe, taking all their stores and weapons, and killing the
best of the victims as a sacrifice of thanks to Bolenkar. He gave their
chieftains Ulin weapons, which they copied in bronze, and they took him for
their god and worshiped him. He commanded them to go forth and conquer whomever
they found, and to rape their captured women, both centaur and human, again and
again, to bring forth babies to rear to do his fell work. He bade them also
take as many wives as they wished, siring as many babes as they could upon
them, and if they died in the bearing, or died because their poor bodies wore
out, what matter? Women were nothing to Bolenkar.”

Ohaern
shuddered, remembering. There had been many, many Ulin at one time, but the
cruelest and most vicious of them had been Ulahane.

When
the Creator had brought forth new and younger races, Ulahane, in jealousy, had
gathered a troop of Ulin about him to torment, enslave, and exterminate humankind,
elfinkind, dwarf-kind, gnomekind, and the others. Lomallin, incensed, had
gathered those who were outraged by Ulahane's cruelty, and a war between Ulin
had resulted, with most of their number being killed—for, though the Ulin never
died of old age or disease, they could be slain, and were: by one another. His
army depleted, Ulahane swayed human beings to do his work against their
fellows, posing as a god and demanding worship by battle. Few Ulin wished to
fight the Scarlet One anymore, so Lomallin had gone among men while Rahani
worked within their dreams and their hearts, and between them they chose Ohaern
to gather a force from the younger races to fight Ulahane's corrupted human
armies—the cruel soldiers of cities whom Ulahane had seduced, and the Vanyar,
chariot-riding barbarians who came driving in from the steppe to conquer the
free hunters of the land, then to pounce upon those cities that Ulahane had not
yet corrupted. Ulahane had slain Lomallin, but the Green One's spirit had
strengthened Ohaern and his nomad armies. Then Lomallin's ghost had slain
Ulahane, and ghost had fought ghost among the stars. Below, Ohaern led the
armies of Life against those dedicated to Death, and as Lomallin extinguished
Ulahane's spirit, Ohaern had won. He had claimed his reward— five centuries in
the arms of Rahani. But now he felt his spirit stir within him, and knew that
he could no longer remain in bliss with her, for he read danger in the horde
below him.

BOOK: The Sage
10.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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