Stemi-garu was ready. He said it to himself over and over and so it must be true. His mother had done her best to persuade him to stay but he was ready. He told his brother so, and despite their mother’s objections, she allowed him to go.
“I am ready,” he said, more to himself than to his brother, as if voicing the words would cement the reality of it.
“The Canie may not let us pass. You must let me deal with them, Stemi. Do not try to Persuade them. That is a challenge for another day.”
They joined the others in the courtyard outside and walked in silence towards The Wall.
Stemi had never been so far from the City centre. The ornate carvings on the walls gave way to more functional grey buildings. He knew they were near. He could feel the Canie watching them, though they kept well out of sight. He caught the occasional movement, a shadow as a Canie child passed. Then all at once, they had reached The Wall.
Two Canie knelt on either side of the door. They stood up, eying the group with disdain.
“You are a long way from home, Quironie-pa,” one said, addressing his brother.
Stemi felt himself stiffen, felt the desire in him rising. Tell them. Then his brother’s hand was on his shoulder and the desire flowed from him.
“My Lord Canie, we are bound for Hina-Dreen, as has been our custom for many years.”
They were children, naturally but that did not comfort Stemi. He supposed they were the same age and were he in the robes, they would be very little to distinguish him from them. Their red armoured suits were hardly necessary for such a duty but Stemi guessed they were trying to prove themselves, as all young Canie would. He would have done the same once. The look the brothers gave him told him that they understood that perfectly well and with it was the suspicion. A child who left was never to be trusted again.
“No one leaves The City. That is The Law.” The Canie stated, but without much conviction.
“Yet it is the Quironie Way,” Kielparie insisted.
“It is the Way for a Quironie, certainly, but for twenty?” the Canie enquired, nodding to the line.
His brother handed the Canie a disc, which he checked briefly.
“It appears that you have permission from the Primol to carry out some research on the Dreen colony?”
Such a thing was unlikely. The Canie, however, were young and inexperienced. They looked at each other uncertainly and then back at his brother, deciding how to proceed.
His brother stood his ground, filling the moment with the assurance that all was correct, ignoring the tension and disbelief. Stemi closed his eyes and waited for what seemed like an eternity. He opened his eyes at the sound of the door bolts being drawn back with a metallic clang.
“It appears you may pass,” they said finally.
The Canie may not have been truly convinced but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, there was nothing they could do.
It was not until the huge door closed behind him that Stemi relaxed. The sounds of the forest surrounded them. He knew some of them, others were strange. That did not frighten him. The noise was reassuring; the Dreen were at peace. He followed his brother along the narrow path looking up occasionally. The defence shield played across the sky but he caught glimpses of the moons between the foliage.
They stopped at the First Bridge, which was little more than a stone slab across the gorge. His brother gave The Blessing before they crossed it in silence. Nervadeen had fallen there as some did on The Journey.
Stemi knew he should be contemplating his journey but he was too preoccupied with the steaming foam of the river as it coursed beneath him, red with silt from the hills. He felt the coolness of the mist on his skin. Every colour seemed brighter and he had never felt more alive, which was strange to him since he was supposed to be contemplating his death.
He walked purposefully up the series of steps cut into the hill beside the river. His brother stopped and blessed the rocky outcrop; their cousin had fallen there last year. There had been rain, making The Passage treacherous. The Primol-an had been blamed, of course. Now, the steps were almost dry. They each whispered his name as they passed the step.
Stemi was the first to notice it. The way felt odd somehow. He had rehearsed the route he would take and how he should feel for so long that he knew exactly what to expect. He mentioned it to his brother who gave the order to stop immediately. Stemi was never wrong. They heard the noise before they saw what had caused it. Stemi covered his ears as the second wave hit him. He looked up and saw a brilliant streak flying across the sky. Then there was silence. His hand had slipped into his brother’s. As suddenly as it had come, the apparition was gone. Stemi wondered if he had been dreaming, his visions somehow confused with wakefulness.
“No Stemi, it was real.” His brother’s voice was concerned. “The jungle is silent now, we must hurry.”
He willed his brother to walk more quickly and time seemed to pass too slowly before they reached Hina-Dreen. Stemi was exhausted and his brother told him to go and rest. He could help with the preparations later. Stemi did not argue. He pulled a small blanket from his sack and sat on it, watching the Family erecting the huts. They unfolded with impossible speed from the small cases they had each been carrying. All at once, the barren hilltop was transformed.
Stemi helped where he could, acutely aware of being young. There was always so much to do but not, it seemed, for him. He was tired of feeling so useless. Today would be different, he decided. As soon as the others were occupied inside their huts, he slipped away to the edge of the clearing. He carefully walked around the defence shielding, feeling for the weak point. There was always a weak point. He found it and closed his eyes, concentrating on being through and on the other side. All at once, he was. He ran through the trees without looking back; no one had seen him go and it would be a little while before he was missed.
He wanted to see the nest.
“What is a Dreen nest like?” he had asked his brother.
“Like staring into a deep pit and watching it stare back at you, judging whether you are worthy to live or die,” his brother said dramatically.
Sometimes he could be so annoying. Stemi sighed. “What is it really like?”
“Reality is a very hard thing to describe… it depends on your point of view…” his brother mused, smiling at the boy’s impatient sighs. “Will you take the Primol-an path, then? They see what is real… we see what is.”
“Kielparie!” Stemi protested, bouncing on the mat impatiently. “Just tell me!”
“Very well… I will try to be… factual… just for you… although you know it is not the Quironie way… It’s a deep burrow, covered in roots and Hina. The first thing you notice is the silence; nothing lives near them. Their hearing is so sensitive that they can sense your heart beating a mile away… and they are always listening... waiting for the right moment…”
“Kielparie, you’ll frighten the boy out of his wits!” their mother scolded from the other room. “Stemi, go to sleep or you will not make a good journey.”
Stemi’s eyes were bright and sleep was the last thing he wanted to do. His brother pulled the blanket over him.
Stemi waited until his mother was gone and said, “Ohh... tell me more.”
“They are quite beautiful... their bodies reflect the moons and the shield so that they seem to be all colours at once. They work cooperatively and with single-minded determination to protect the Queen. They are absolute and ruthless in their pursuit of food… but like all creatures here, they are just trying to survive.”
“They do not seem so terrible now,” Stemi said thoughtfully.
“You, Stemi, are food!”
Kielparie laughed at the boy’s expression. Stemi put his arms around his brother’s neck, hugging him tightly and it seemed that he was himself again. He had been silent for much of the day and Stemi wondered what he was supposed to learn from that. It was odd when every activity was filled with his brother’s song. It’s absence had been almost disturbing and Stemi struggled to make sense of it.
“I’d like to see them,” the boy said, at last, sitting up. “Really see them… not on a disc.”
“When you are older maybe. Not this time, Stemi. This is your first Journey. Do not take risks or you will not live to be matched. You will have time to see the Dreen on your next Journey and there will be many more after that.”
“And I will hear The Lady sing?”
His brother smiled and said, “Yes… you will.”
He stroked the boy’s hair gently as he had done so many times before. Whenever Stemi remembered the horrors he had seen and the terror threatened to overwhelm him, Kielparie would be there, filling his thoughts with happier times. This time, the movements seemed rehearsed. He seemed preoccupied, distant somehow again. Stemi touched his face and Kielparie smiled reassuringly.
“I will miss you, brother.”
Kielparie continued to stroke his hair softly.
“It is the last time I will make the journey. The Lady has chosen,” he sighed.
He did not seem pleased by her choice. Stemi was puzzled by it. The Lady was, they said, all that she should be. Stemi had never heard her sing but he had heard the rumours. The other Quironie looked on his brother with quiet envy and yet Kielparie was sad. Stemi saw it but it was briefly checked. It was usual for a Quironie to be concerned with death. Life was only worth living if one understood how fleeting it was if one had the choice to live. Yet instead of the anticipation, he expected in his brother, he saw dread. Instead of joy, he saw sadness. Stemi was convinced he was missing an important Quironie lesson but try as he might to understand, it eluded him.
Perhaps he would understand when she sang when she died.
“What will I do when you are gone?” Stemi asked, trying hard not to succumb to the sadness he felt.
Kielparie held him and reassured him. “You are our gift. No one will take you from us.”
“You have chosen the Geru?” he asked eventually, puzzled.
“The Lady has chosen the Geru. Stemi, to hear such a song is a rare thing. To have the chance to sing it even rarer. We Quironie here rarely have time to sing before we are taken. The Lady knows this and that you will be part of it… If she felt you were not Quironie, you would not be here. She would not allow it.”
Stemi nodded but he was not reassured. It was true that he was being taken into the Quironie world. It was equally true they welcomed him but not all did. Some never would.
“They think I have been seeded. I know they do. I can see it in their eyes… the Quironie do not want me,” he said quietly, aware that their mother was close by. “Even our mother thinks it. I could come with you and stay with The Lady.”
“My dear, The Lady has an escort. You must stay here. Do not fret,” he said softly. “The Quironie do want you. Dario is a Quironie, not the Quironie… and not even that most of the time! Do not let him frighten you. It is not up to him. It is up to me.”
He sat by the boy and stroked his hair, singing to him softly until he finally fell asleep.
“You should not promise him what you cannot guarantee,” his mother said when she thought the boy was no longer listening. “Dario is not someone you should defy. Kielparie, I am as fond of the boy as you. We all are but-”
Kielparie sighed, “I know, but he was gifted to us; I will not give him back. That is the end of the matter.”
Stemi remembered the conversation as if it had just happened. Today was not a day for sadness. Today, he decided, he would be brave.
He was through the trees but he hesitated at the edge; the silence was unnerving.
“Hold it tight, Stemi!”He said to himself, encouraged by the Quironie phrase to be bold.
He began to imagine voices below him, perhaps the spirits of past victims. No, there really were voices carrying up to him from the nest. Strange and beautiful voices. Then all at once, he saw her, running towards him. She was Felehan and wearing a grey suit. She shouted something at him and waved. There were few Felehan with pale skin or golden hair and despite the Ballads; he could not help but notice. Her eyes were a vivid green. That was a good sign. He checked himself before he noticed more. To mark her like a Canie would be inappropriate. They relied on the physical but to be Quironie, he had to be more than that. Stemi concentrated but she was difficult to read. Although he could not understand her, curiosity made him stay anyway.
Stemi decided to remain close to her. Perhaps she was also looking at the nest. Even Felehan adult company was better than none and her curious manner was interesting.
There were two of them. It was unusual that they did not understand him, but he did not allow that to unsettle him. He told them what he wanted to do, but they did not seem able to listen.
“The Felehan mind is a tangle of chaos and disorder,” the disc droned. “They have Child Scan’s because they are not able to order their own lives. They must be protected from themselves and it is our Duty to do this.”
Stemi was certain that many of the Felehan he knew were quite able. All of the Pravda Felehan were able to order their own lives. The Council did not agree. These Felehan seemed different. Since these had wanted to go to the nest and he had lost his resolve to go alone, he remained beside them. It seemed that their Journeys had collided for a reason and Stemi knew enough of the traditional Ballads to go along with it.
A channel had been forged through the Dreen nest. Stemi began to feel uneasy again, his excitement at meeting these strangers all but forgotten. He could not shake the curiosity and continued down the hill. All of the Dreen were gone and the nest was still. He wondered how close he could get.
Slowly he made his way towards the Hina before sense told him to stop.
He watched and waited. They would sense their presence soon and come out and he would see them.
They Felehan did not have much equipment with them for studying the nest and no protection that he could see, which he thought odd. They were just standing on the edge looking at it and Stemi soon found out why. Another Felehan pushed his way out from under the nest. He had escaped! No… he had gone into the nest and was now pushing a bag of some kind through the Hina. The vines were being stretched dangerously and Stemi tried to Tell them to leave but they did not listen. The man who had appeared was holding something towards Stemi and he began to argue with the other man over something. This was not unusual. He had been told that Felehan often argued but to do so at the edge of the nest was reckless beyond belief. He could see the Hina vibrating with their noise. Soon the Dreen would come. They had to move away, now! The men did not. Only the woman appeared to understand the danger.
He watched their struggle with a mixture of awe and terror. He was not afraid to die. It was inevitable and he had chosen to embrace the philosophy. The manner of death, however, was something he would not relish. The Dreen ate their victims slowly, releasing a powerful toxin, which maintained a slow metabolism keeping the prey fresh for longer. The Primol maintained that it was impossible to feel this and the victim would be unaware. The Primol were not Quironie.
Stemi watched as one was taken. He closed his eyes and blessed his journey. The only one he would make alone.
The shorter Felehan man was trying to free his companion. The woman wanted to go back but Stemi held her; she would die too if she did. Then, to his amazement, the older man broke free and left his companion but rather than running, he threw a stone at the Queen. Did they understand nothing? There was a chance for him yet. If the Queen was too preoccupied with her meal, they could escape. He ran, still holding the woman’s hand. He had never before held a woman’s hand. Even his own mother wore Prith and the silk-like gloves prevented skin-to-skin contact. The woman’s hand felt soft and moist and he was strangely comforted by it.
He ran and they followed. He had been foolish, reckless and for once he longed to see his brother so he could scold him. The edge of the camp was so far away and he was convinced that they would not reach it in time. One of the Felehan stopped and sat down. Stemi frantically willed him to continue, but they were exhausted.
The queen did not follow. It was said that Felehan tasted bad to them. Certainly, the queen had not been very persistent in her pursuit. He could only hope that she would not be keen to venture out and would be too busy with her catch, however unpleasant. He would hurry back and tell his brother about the gap in their nest and what he had seen in it.
Kielparie looked at the strangers as they slept. The man had the appearance of a Felehan but his clothing was grey and padded. He did not recognise the insignia and he had none of the usual enhancements of a Wisukat engineer, though he dressed like one. His dark hair, flecked with grey, was too short for the Geru. The woman was also Felehan and wearing the same clothing, which was equally odd. There was something familiar about her and he struggled to place exactly what it was, without success. They were not Islanders or from The Rim, of that he was certain.
“Tell me what you saw, Stemi.”
Stemi recounted the tale, glad to have an audience who were so attentive. He had been to a Dreen nest and lived! He would be the stuff of Ballads and for a reason, he approved of. He was not just a Survivor. He was a Quironie who faced death. The only cloud on his horizon was that his brother did not approve and made certain that Stemi knew it. With the strange ship to consider, he let it go for the moment.
“How did they get into Hina Dreen?” Kielparie asked the boy thoughtfully.
Stemi recounted how he had held them, felt for the weak spot in the energy shield and then walked through. He had been Canie after all, Kielparie mused, but to take two Felehan at the same time required discipline, strength and the desire to continue on the Canie path. Stemi had left it behind. He did not doubt the boy’s story; Stemi would never lie to him and yet two Felehan had come through the barrier when only one should have. It was a puzzle.
“Do you think we saw their craft come down? Perhaps the nest broke their fall? Perhaps the Dreen scattered because of the noise?” one said.
“It was not a Ketlan…” another said thoughtfully. “They are not from Dimnai. Is it possible that their craft could have got through the defence shield?”
“If so, the Canie would be here by now,” Kielparie mused. “They must be from The Rim… testing a new craft perhaps? Perhaps from the Lowlands? You know how they like to invent things. Unless they had help...”
The group seemed to agree with his suggestion and so they settled back down to the business of the Ballad. It astounded him that the Quironie listened to what he said. He had been invisible before, just another Quironie man. Now he was hers, the people noticed him. The people listened. It was unnerving and at the same time, he felt the weight of responsibility.
“What do we do? The Lady will arrive soon. You have chosen the Geru Ballad… we cannot change it now… The Felehan will not understand.”
“They do not need to. We continue as planned,” Kielparie replied. “Stemi they seem to trust you. Take care of them.”
The boy nodded once and said, “I can Tell them but I feel their grief. It is so very close.”
Kielparie rested his hand on his shoulder. The boy had lost everything after all.
“There will be time for your grief and there will be time for their grief. If you suppress theirs it will help you to manage your own. Stemi, such feelings must be given their place but you must not allow them to overwhelm you. It is what it means to be Damjud.”
The boy nodded once. His brother was, naturally, correct and he saw no reason to doubt him. There was just one thing he remained worried by.
“There is a… Lady with them…” he said quietly.
Kielparie laughed but not unkindly, “My dear, she is Felehan so hardly a threat to you; and you,” he ruffled his hair playfully, “have not yet finished The Journey. You are not a man yet, my boy. Besides, it is not so difficult a task, is it? Not for a boy who has been to the Nest?”
Stemi smiled at him, pleased with himself and trotted away to his hut. Kielparie watched him go, smiling. He tried to reassure the others although he felt uneasy himself. They continued to make preparations for The Lady’s arrival and Kielparie sat watching the sky for some time, considering what he should do.
He saw no other option but to take the Felehan back with them. It was too far to the nearest settlement and the Queen would be restless. They would never make it without being hunted; Felehan was better than nothing.
The journey back would be difficult enough. It would take all of their strength to shield the party from her. She knew they were there now and she would be waiting.
It left the issue of what to do with the Felehan once they arrived at The Wall.
They could not enter the City. The Canie would not allow it. How could he get them past? Perhaps he was not meant to. The woman would, of course, have to be saved but the man… he saw suspicions everywhere. He could not be trusted and he would be difficult to conceal. Then, he mused, perhaps there was another way.
He needed to talk to The Lady.