Marta looked at the tall rock tower at the head of the valley she and Altan flew toward. The steep, craggy sides glowed pink in the soft light of early evening. Was that what he climbed down with the babies? Twice? Then flew all day and into the night—a distance that it had taken them nearly two days to travel back? She was impressed. Eanna and Darta, the two unpartnered Karda who volunteered to carry the babies, circled up above the two of them, waiting their turn to land. Kibrath and Altan landed first, cantering toward the nest.
Marta and Sidhari followed. She looked across the clearing where the two small fledglings peered over the rough nest of sticks Altan built beside a small crude building in the shelter of low trees. She dismounted and headed toward the babies’ nest, so eager to see them she didn’t unsaddle her Karda. The babies' shrill cries echoed through the valley.
"Move, Mi'hiru. They're probably more than a little hungry by now," Altan said. "They're going to be cross. And they're scared."
He grabbed her arm as she headed toward the nest, nearly forgetting where she was in her eagerness. "You get the gear off the Karda and brush them down. Carry the saddles in there," pointing to the small cot near the nest. "I'll feed the hungry babies. They won't know you."
Altan grabbed one of the packs stuffed with the fresh vegetables and meat, tossed it over his shoulder and strode to the nest. Marta glared at his back. Now she remembered why she'd almost protested his autocratic order that she come with him. She unbuckled the saddles from Sidhari and Kibrath, coiled their long straps and carried them to the small cot. Then she took the rigging off Eanna and Darta and fished through her saddlebag to find the brushes.
Why was he so rude? She paid more attention to him and the babies than to her brushing until Sidhari swiped at her with a wing. "Sorry," she muttered and went back to brushing.
When Sidhari and Kibrath were brushed, and she’d checked the wing feathers of all four, the Karda took off to hunt. Altan called. "Let's get this nest cleaned up. They're tired, hungry, and sleepy. And so am I."
"You're certainly cross enough," Marta muttered to herself. And you left the dirty job until I could help. They worked together, tossing soiled grass out of the nest. Two days was too long as was evident from the smell. Altan laughed when she slipped on a smelly mess and went down on her behind right in the middle of it. She made a face, which amused him even more. She started to brush at the back of her skirt and stopped, looking glumly at the mess on her hand. "I'm going to smell as bad as this nest now."
"And unfortunately we have to share the cabin tonight." He smiled.
She gritted her teeth.
They cut fresh grass and piled it thick in the middle. Or tried. The curious fledglings wouldn’t stay out of their way, nudging Marta, exploring her clothes, stretching their necks to Altan for a head scratch, scattering the grass as soon as it piled up until they wore as much grass as feathers. By the time she and Altan finished, Marta was hot and itching. Bits of grass pricked inside her divided skirt and blouse and down the tops of her boots. The babies crooned, circled the nest, and settled, eyes drooping, tangled together. She glanced at Altan. He watched them, the planes of his face soft with affection.
She tucked herself as close as she could get, letting their quiet sounds soften her mind. The little female laid her head on Marta's knee, begging for a head scratch. Even after working with Karda for a full season, her empathy honed by contact with so many different animals on so many different planets, she still had difficulty melding with the Karda. Others insisted she was one of the best, but there was always a veil she couldn't pierce as if they spoke to her, but she didn't hear. She seldom skipped an opportunity to work on deepening her rapport. She looked down at the fledglings. She could feel their hunger dissolve into well-being after their meal, their feeling of safety centered on Altan and Kibrath, their wary acceptance of her.
The four older Karda, replete after their successful hunt, brought three fat birbir for the babies and settled themselves around the nest as afternoon darkened the valley. Altan opened the door to the stone cot and carried both packs inside. Marta stayed, stroking the babies for a long time, then climbed out of the nest and went to the small creek below the meadow. She washed herself and the soiled back of her riding skirt in the icy water. She wrung it out as best she could, headed for the cot, and picked up the packs of feed on the way. They shouldn't leave them outside. The adult Karda would guard against predators that might be attracted, but why take the chance?
A small sandstone chimney-less stove centered the back wall. One narrow, rough bed with a coarse canvas mattress stuffed with grass, stood against a side wall. There was no other furniture, only a couple of hooks and crude shelves on one wall. She dropped the packs in a corner and looked around, feeling awkward in the small space. Altan added a couple of round, porous black stones—like volcanic rock—to the ones in the stove. Then he stood and held his hands, palms out, toward it. The stones began to glow red. Marta stared. How could he do that? Her face smoothed to bland when Altan turned around. He apparently thought nothing of starting a fire—or whatever made the stones glow—with a flick of his fingers.
"Sorry, I don't have the energy to warm the room otherwise. The magma stones will heat it up soon. I've used too much…." He stopped and looked at the one bed. "One of us will have to take the floor, I guess." He waved a hand at the small bed.
What was he talking about, warming the room otherwise? I can feel the heat from the stove. That’s strange enough.
"We'll draw straws for it." She worked a stiff piece of grass out of the mattress and broke it in two uneven lengths, holding them out to him in her fist. "You pick."
He picked the long twig, rubbed the back of his neck and gave her a rueful I'm-sorry-but-not-sorry-enough-to-give-up-the-bed grin. He removed his sword belt, twisted back and forth, stretching his back, and sat on the bed to take off his boots.
I guess it's only fair. He's got to be exhausted, three long flights in four days. And rescuing those babies, carrying them down that cliff. I'm surprised he's in as good a shape as he is.
Marta caught herself looking at his "shape" and flushed, remembering his arms around her when they danced and the painful shock between them when they first touched. She ducked her head and went to find grass or leaves to soften her floor bed.
A distant scream sounded, as from a hawk high in the clear air. Sidhari responded with an ear-piercing trumpet of distress. The others screamed, heads up, searching the sky.
Marta stood still, intent, her head back trying to see where the sound came from, her heart lurching to her throat. Then "Altan," she screamed, "He's dying," and ran for the landing meadow.
Deep trumpeting distress calls from a strange Karda echoed through the valley. Marta's veil pierced. The cries slammed into her head pounding terror and distress. The four Karda behind her screamed in answer. She stopped dead, and an enormous sorrel Karda crashed in a heap at the end of the grass clearing less than two strides in front of her. She doubled over, feet spread to keep from falling, and wrapped her arms tight around her. Her stomach clenched against the terrible pain and intense grief that pounded into her and shattered her shields. The Karda raised its head, its amber eyes found her, and a wall of fury smashed into her head, snapping it back. The Karda collapsed. Dead.
"No, No!" His sudden deep rapport with her tore loose, ravaged her mind. Rage echoed inside her head, sheared away thought, filling her with the immense void of death. She dove toward him.
Altan grabbed her from behind and swung her away. "Wait. Wait, Marta."
Blind to everything but the echoes of the dead Karda’s pain and fury she struggled to jerk loose, but his hand was a tight band around her arm, and he didn’t let go. She stood, shaking until her mind became her own again. He let go.
He was right. She shouldn't touch the Karda unless she had to. It was dead, and Karda had their own way of grieving. There was nothing she could do.
The two of them stood side by side for a moment. Then Marta heard a rustling sound from the ornate rig on the back of the collapsed sorrel. A small child in a rose-colored robe trimmed with rich ivory lace struggled out of a large pouch in the rigging. Golden hair swirled in a soft halo around the beautiful creamy pink face streaked with tears. The little girl raised her arms to Marta with a piteous whimper.
"A child," whispered Marta, and moved to catch her before she fell. Altan hesitated for a moment then reached a long arm to grab her again.
"Don't," he said. He threw Marta behind him and drew his sword with his other hand. The child cried again, a soft, beseeching sound, her small arms still stretched toward Marta.
"Barra!" he shouted and flicked his sword so quick it was but a gleaming blur and took the child's head off.
Marta screamed, and he grabbed her as she tried to get around him. "What have you done?"
"Wait," he said.
She stopped struggling at the fierce note of command in his voice and looked up in astonishment at the intense mix of anger and horror on his face then back at the child's body. The child started to fizzle. A thick black cloud breathed out through the small body's pores. Dark fingers eddied out as if searching. The dense miasma, strange and terrible, swirled around the tiny disintegrating girl-child and stretched toward Marta. She clapped her hands over her mouth to keep from vomiting. Her stomach lurched at the sick, sweet, rotten smell of long-dead things. She stood, paralyzed.
"Look away! Now!" Altan Jerked her around and forced her face into his chest, his arms hard around her. She fought to breathe. "Close your eyes and keep them closed." His mouth pressed close to her ear.
She couldn’t struggle. Her mind, torn by the sudden wrenching loss of rapport with the dying Karda, was overwhelmed by the skin-crawling evil that emanated from the body of the child and swirled around them. Altan held her face so tightly against his chest she fought to breathe. His face pressed against the top of her head, and his breath blew strands of her hair across her cheek. A shrill, high keen of fury and frustration pushed sharp needles into her ears.
Sidhari screamed a long, trumpeting tenor call. Kibrath answered, then Eanna and Darta. Altan’s grip on her relaxed, and Marta stood, his arms wrapped around her for several minutes or an age, then he carried her, nearly comatose, to the trees at the edge of the meadow and sat, settling her in his lap, arms still holding her tight against him.
The four Karda stepped up the grassy meadow, no longer screaming, moving slowly, wings mantled, crests upraised, with a solemn grace. The black cloud was gone; the child thing, a dried nothing of grey dusty skin and bone folded in crumpled rose velvet and ivory lace, lay on the green grass next to the dead Karda.
Kibrath and Sidhari, Eanna and Darta walked in solemn unison around their dead kin and the small withered body of the child. They moved in a slow circle, wings mantled, trumpeting deep, clear tenor harmonies that carried through the valley to rebound from the surrounding mountains like tolling bells. They turned, cantered down the meadow and rose, one by one. Wide wings snapped out and beat in unison, and the four Karda circled up in two rising spirals over the sprawled body. They flew in a double helix that rose and fell, rose and fell for a long time while song of their grief echoed through the small valley.
Marta and Altan sat clasped together watching the beautiful aerial dance until Marta, embarrassed, moved away and sat apart, hugging her knees, her eyes on the Karda’s mourning dance. Altan finally stood and reached to pull her up. She ignored his hand and forced her stiff body to stand.
He stared as if seeing her for the first time. "It came for you," he said. "Blessed moons of Adalta, why did that Tela Oroku come for you?" He reached his hand out as if to protect her, to pull her to him again then dropped it, his expression tight and puzzled, and they walked slowly back to the small cabin, not speaking.
They sat side by side on the one bed, as far away from each other as they could get without falling off the ends, eating salty stew and drinking the strong herbal tea Altan brewed in a small metal pot on the stove. The travel lantern on the floor in front of them cast a glow on the sharp planes of his face. Marta ignored his stare as best she could, but she could feel his curiosity and alarm.
What is a Tela Oroku? Marta racked her brain trying to figure out what it could be. What kind of horrible thing had inhabited the tiny body of that beautiful child? She knew better than to ask. She’d expose her ignorance of something everyone else knew.
Altan broke the pregnant silence. "Why you?" he said, wiping out his cup and stowing it back in his pack. "Why was the Tela Oroku aimed at you? Who have you angered so much?"
"How are you so sure it was me it was after?"
"Don't be dense. It went straight for you; you can't deny that. And why didn't you protect yourself? You were looking straight at it. You nearly let it grab your eyes before I took off its head."
"I’ve never seen anything like that before."
He stared at her, his green eyes narrowed. "But you should have known. How is it that you don't know about the Tela Oroku? I don't think you even knew what it was. Granted it's been a long time since anyone made one. But everyone knows the stories about them."
"It's late, and I'm tired. I'm going to sleep now. We have a long trip tomorrow to make it even halfway, and we both need to rest." She moved to her pitiful make-shift bed on the floor, wrapped herself in her trail blankets, wiggled out of her cold, damp skirt, and reached to get it near the fire to dry without uncovering herself. He took it from her and stretched it over their packs next to the stove. She lay down with her back to the room and him, leaving him to put out the lantern, her mind in turmoil.
Why me, indeed? And what are the Larrak? I’m not doing my job right if the stories are so well known, and I haven’t heard them. I’m supposed to be collecting ethnographic data, not just relying on the black hole incompetent data mavens on the ship. My ignorance is going to kill me. Are the others having this much difficulty?
This wasn't the first time she'd been caught with too little of what was common knowledge. Usually ignoring the questions worked—she was skillful about turning people's questions back on them—but she had a feeling this was different. Altan’s attention had gone beyond his casual interest in her in a way she didn't like. She needed to communicate with the ship or one of the other agents, but that was impossible for now. Chances were there wasn't any information on Tela Oroku in the data banks anyway, and she didn’t have her Cue with her to see if there was anything on it.
She was tired, and not just from the events of the day. She'd done this kind of work since she was three when her mother died, and her father started taking her with him on-planet when he worked. The excitement of learning about yet another world, yet another culture was fading. She missed him terribly. She wanted so badly to be able to talk to him now. But he was gone, and she had no one left—no family, few friends, and those few scattered across the universe like fading stars. She had only her job and the consortium.
Magic. What usually seemed like magic turned out to be an unexplained or undiscovered technology. The rule about exploring a new planet was "Remember, anything is possible, even fairies, elves and Yetis." But she knew better than to send something that reeked this much of magic in her next data dump to the ship. It took her a long time to fall asleep.
Marta and Altan both agreed that the Karda had recovered overnight from the shock of the day before. Marta wasn't at all sure she was, but she wasn't about to say so. Her head was splitting, and the walls she had so carefully built were crumbling.
~The young ones are ready.~ The reassuring words came from inside her aching head which made them not reassuring at all. Where had they come from? Her head felt like there was something inside kicking its way out with pointy-toed shoes. Or boots. She could scarcely think, and now she was hallucinating.
Altan pulled out the straps and carrying harnesses they brought to hold the fledglings on the backs of Eanna and Darta. Both lost in their own thoughts, they spoke little, working together with an ease they hadn't had before, oiling the leathers, straightening the straps, fitting them to one and then the other Karda. Avoiding even an accidental touch.
Altan tore down one side of the stick nest he'd so carefully constructed only four days before. They wrapped each small Karda in a blanket, careful of the un-fledged wings, tucking the delicate legs gently inside the wrapping.
~Calm, little ones, calm. Have care for that wing, Marta.~ More words that came from nowhere.
She shook her head and was immediately sorry. It hurt enough to bring tears to her eyes. It was just that she was so tired and emotionally drained by the death of the Karda. And Altan watched her every move, deep worry lines between his eyebrows. Or were they lines of suspicion and distrust? She ignored him. Or tried to.
Together they lifted the gold female, her nares flushed, and her wild eyes darted from Marta to Altan to Sidhari to Eanna. They ran straps through the rings of the carrying harness and secured the small body on Eanna’s back. Always in the back of Marta's mind was that voice.
~It will be all right, little one, little Irnini. Eanna will carry you safely.~
"Her name is Irnini," Marta said.
He looked at her, "What? Her name?"
She glanced away. She hadn’t intended to say it aloud. Sidhari nudged her back. Marta turned and rested her aching head on Sidhari's shoulder. The voices stopped.
When they had the male fledgling safely installed on Darta's back, they saddled Sidhari and Kibrath. Marta almost fell when she stepped from Sidhari's knee to the saddle, and Altan started toward her. She waved him away. "I'm fine, Altan."
He watched her mount then jumped to grab the saddle pommel and swung himself to Kibrath's back and buckled in. The Karda loped in a line, working up to a canter and lifted into the air, circling once above the lifeless body of the big Karda and the small dusty pool of rose and cream silk.
Despite her headache, Marta reveled in the thrill of the steep take off as they circled up a thermal to make altitude before heading north on the long flight to the fields outside the massive walls of Toldar Prime.
They flew for about three hours, and then Marta heard a clear firm voice in her head.
~Marta, carrying the young ones is tiring on Eanna and Darta. They don't know how to balance. We need to look for a safe place to land and rest.~
She gasped. The pain stabbed behind her eyes. That was not her thought. She froze; her hands gripped the pommel in front of her so tightly they ached. "Who…who are you?" she stuttered, afraid she wouldn't get an answer and afraid she would.
~Sidhari, of course. I was beginning to wonder if you would ever wake up.~ The voice went on calmly,~ How about over there to the East. There are trees, and I seem to remember a water source.~
Oh, galaxy of the damned, I hear voices in my head, and I'm talking back. What's next, fairies and gnomes? Marta's laugh was too wild, and she clamped her teeth on her bottom lip till it hurt, and the berserk laughter that wanted to erupt stilled. After a confused moment, she signaled to Altan, pointing to the small copse of trees she could barely see lying some way to the East.
I'm going mad.
~Of course you're not,~ she heard in a pleasant, matter of fact tone.
It was too much for Eanna and Darta to try to make the trip home in two days. Long before evening the second day, Marta and Altan both noticed the two females tiring and started looking for another place to camp. Marta could hear Sidhari telling her they needed to stop. She was getting used to the voices in her head, and the aching had subsided a little. Maybe whatever that strange creation had been, the thing Altan called a Tela Oroku, had done something to her after all. All those times other Mi'hiru had said something about talking with Karda were apparently not hyperbole.
They followed a small winding stream for an hour and finally landed on the plains close to a cottonwood grove. They unbuckled and unwrapped the little ones, watching them run, flapping their short, stubby wings, butting each other and getting in the way as she and Altan unbuckled the harnesses on Eanna and Darta and unsaddled the other two. Eventually, Sidhari had enough and scolded them, or that’s how her sharp cries sounded. They quieted down, hanging their heads a little. Marta laughed aloud, then grabbed her head when pain flashed.
Altan looked at her. "Are you all right? What's so funny?"
She looked at him, confused for a minute. Of course. He can't hear them.
A brief sensation of amusement flashed from somewhere. ~Of course he can, but only when we choose.~
Who was that? Kibrath? Sidhari? Who? Both of them had wandered to the small stream to drink. "Nothing. I'm just glad to be on the ground." She ducked her head to fish in her pack for a brush, feeling his eyes still focused on her. She hadn't heard anything but the Karda in her head all day. Hearing Altan speak aloud felt odd. Too loud.
She was aware of his close attention all evening. He did almost everything to set up their camp. He dug the fire pit, put the stew on and the water to boil for tea. He forced her to sit and work on reinforcing one of the straps from Darta's harness he claimed was coming apart. Marta could find nothing wrong with it, but she worked over the stitching anyway. He refused to let her help feed the Karda, ignoring her when she tried. He even offered to get her a blanket as the air began to get colder.
She finally snapped. "I have a headache, that's all. And whatever that thing was, it didn't hurt me. I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself Altan. I'm not an invalid."