Ephemeral: Chapter 31
When Chaska opened the door, Clara grasped his arm more tightly as she realized his home had not been built on solid ground but several stories above it in the tree canopy. A single trunk about fifteen feet across with massive boughs supported his dwelling. She gazed down at the forest floor — a good thirty-five feet below — and gulped. She spotted dozens of similar elevated structures scattered throughout the forest. Floating wooden walkways lined with white twinkle lights connected each home to a central wooden boardwalk which ran between the trees. It was as if Clara had stepped into a fairy vale – only she had no reassuring wings if she happened to slip.
Chaska chuckled as he led her forward. “Don’t distress yourself, my dear. Our bridges are quite solid. And you're much safer up here than down there.” He nodded toward the ground. “The elevation alone protects us from eighty percent of predators.”
“What about the other twenty percent?” Aaric asked from behind them.
Chaska turned, amused. “Don't worry, Almitian. We may live in the sticks, but we still believe in technology. We have drone surveillance, a laser perimeter we activate after Elpis-setting, trained marksmen, and pretty much everyone in the tribe knows how to handle one of these.” Here, he let go of Clara’s arm and took a small ax from his belt. The sharpened head glinted, reflecting the white twinkle lights. Its handle was cherry-polished wood about the length of Clara’s forearm, again with patterns of vines and leaves intricately carved into it.
“Do you use it to chop down trees as well?” Clara asked as they walked along.
Chaska laughed aloud, then saw Clara's pink cheeks and checked himself. “No, it would take forever to get through a trunk with this thing. Blunt the blade, too. But they're great for smaller projects or a quick defense.”
“Is this hatchet similar to your clan heirloom?” Clara ventured.
“Similar in size and shape,” Chaska nodded. “But our heirloom looks more like crystal and its blade never dulls. Chief Dekohta carries it – always.”
Uh oh. Clara did not particularly care for the way Chaska emphasized, “always.”
Chaska tucked his hatchet back into his belt and took Clara's arm in his. “Chief Dekohta has mapped more of this region than anyone else. He’s also the best marksman in the tribe. Once he split a fly right between the wings from ten yards away — it had landed on the bullseye of a target. The Omnia ax never seems to miss its mark. His wife says he even sleeps with it under his pillow.”
“Talk about living on the edge,” Clara grinned.
Chaska laughed. “What is life without adventure? And adventure is nothing without risk. Wouldn't you agree, Aaric? Aaric?”
He and Clara turned and waited for Aaric to catch up from about twenty feet behind. Clara felt a twinge of guilt at seeing him shift slowly from side to side; she hadn't realized she and Chaska had outpaced him.
Chaska frowned slightly and glanced as his armband for the time while Clara looked down and studied the wood planks beneath her feet.
“What were you saying?” Aaric asked when he reached them.
“I said,” Chaska repeated, “life is not worth living without adventure and risk. Wouldn't you agree?”
Aaric considered. “I don't think people need always chase danger to find adventure. Those who truly desire it can often find it wherever they are – if they're open to it.” He met eyes briefly with Clara.
Chaska raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Do you find watching plants grow adventurous?”
“Sometimes.” Aaric said as he fingered the ring Mother Alden had given him.
Clara was about to mention the heirloom's power when Aaric shook his head ever so slightly and grabbed the bridge railing with his good hand.
“Well,” Chaska said as he turned back to Clara. “We do come from different cultures. This way, now.”
About two hundred yards beyond and thirty-five feet below Chaska’s abode lay a large clearing about the size of four football fields. Several campfires blazed – many with spits of roasted game stretched over the flames. The warm glow sent savory smells into the crisp night air. Clara's mouth watered. Boisterous children giggled and chased each other like elvish shadows through the maze of flames while their parents clinked mugs of frothy drinks and laughed. And even here, the wrinkled and white-haired sat with grand babies on their knees, chatting with friends or watching the frivolity unfold with satisfied smiles.
Chaska pointed to a terrace cut into a rocky embankment near the far edge of the field. “That's where Chief Dekohta and the tribal elders sit.”
Clara grew shyer with each footstep as the trio made their way toward the terrace. The chief and his wife – easily identified by their ornately-carved thrones and bejeweled circlets on their foreheads – sat with their advisors and officials around a twenty foot-long table made from a single tree trunk. Vases of white cone-like flowers, baskets of fruit and nuts, and platters of roasted squashes, meat, and rustic multi-grained breads sat in the center atop a long green and gold table runner. Clara looked longingly at the festive spread, but doubted she'd get to eat until after the interview concluded. She hoped the officials couldn't hear her stomach grumbling over the musicians strumming stringed instruments in the background.
Chaska stepped in front of Aaric and Clara, saluted his dark haired chief and bowed from the waist.
“Well, well, well,” grinned Dekohta. “So these are the visitors you found lost in the woods. I trust you two are feeling better?”
Aaric held up his good arm in a similar salute and also bowed. Clara tucked one leg behind the other and attempted a curtsy — the lone vestige from her elementary school ballet lessons.
“We are most grateful for your rescue and your hospitality, Chief Dekohta,” Aaric said.
The chief waved away his thanks. “It was nothing. Do unto others and such. I understand your lady friend is from Earth?”
Clara nodded. “Yes, sir … er, Chief Dekohta.”
Dekohta smiled. “We have not had dealings with Earth since the early colonial days. What is our mother planet like now?”
All eyes focused on Clara. She practically blushed at the question. “Well ...” How could she tell these compassionate people the truth about her home planet? Earth boasted the healthiest, wealthiest society in the universe – but only through violence and cruelty. She feared a direct answer might prejudice him against helping Aaric's clan.
“Don't be shy,” Dekohta said with an encouraging smile.
Clara cleared her throat and tried her best to navigate the winding road between accuracy and diplomacy. “Back on Earth, we do not have as many beautiful forests as you do. Most of our people live in cities.” Here she detected several officials' mouths turn downward in disgust. Whoops! “But one thing I think Earth could learn from Elpis 7,” she continued, “is to value all its community members no matter who they are. Your tribe has been most generous to us even though we live outside your borders. Again, we thank you.”
Dekohta grinned approvingly at Clara's little speech. “Well said. Now then, Almitian,” he addressed Aaric, “my scout tells me you have a request?”
“Yes, Chief Dekohta.” Aaric stood as straight as he could. “We wish to trade clan heirlooms with you.”
A collective gasp went around the table.
Someone dropped a glass.
The musicians stopped.
All went silent.
“Only temporarily,” Aaric qualified.
Dekohta’s dark eyebrows met over his nose. “For what purpose?”
“To destroy the Fire Stone, free the Almitian Eldership from Agilis prison, and prevent a war.”
“Is that all?” Dekohta laughed. “You speak folly. Everyone knows Captain Karnak never removes his Fire Stone. His guards would blast you to atoms the moment you set foot in his chambers.”
“Captain Karnak is dead,” Aaric said quietly.
At this, the officials sobered. The chief's wife covered her mouth with her hand.
Dekohta's face grew serious. “Dead?! When? How?”
Aaric glanced at Clara; she hung her head. “One of the visitors from Earth was seduced by the stone. She killed Karnak and now wears it as her own. The Almitian Eldership is imprisoned, and Agilis has a powerful military. We must remove the Fire Stone before a war breaks out. Your heirloom is the only tool strong enough to destroy it.”
One of the officials at the end of the table shook his head. “We’ve warned the Almitians time and time again not to trust or trade with the Silexians. Now they see we were right!”
“The Silvan people have always been independent,” someone else added. “We shouldn't get involved in another clan's fight.”
“We’ll not risk our own blood to pay for their foolishness!” another shouted.
Clara moved closer to Aaric's side; he had grown pale.
“Peace!” said Dekohta’s wife as she stood to calm the whelming storm. Her lustrous black hair trailed down to her waist. “We have long enjoyed trade and friendship with the Almitians. They have never done us harm. If they are in need, we cannot ignore them.”
“But why risk our lives to protect their borders?” demanded the first elder.
“Take care how you speak to your Chieftainess!” warned Dekohta.
Chastened, the elder bowed to the lady. “Please excuse me. I'm only saying these events may teach the Almitians the importance of self-sufficiency.”
“Should they survive subjugation ...” she murmured.
The elder shrugged. “What will be will be. But even if our clan agreed to trade heirlooms with Almitas, how could these two — a cripple and an outsider — possibly hope to succeed in their scheme? What's to keep this new leader from taking our heirloom as her own if they fail?”
Clara winced at the insult to Aaric, but he stood firm (albeit crooked on his shorter leg) and gazed steadily at the chief.
Dekohta rose slowly from his seat and placed his hands down on the table. “I have made a decision. As much as I appreciate our relationship with Almitas, I will not risk the lives of my people in this endeavor.”
The assembled tribal council applauded.
Clara's heart sank to her toes. What do we do now, then? She glanced at Aaric and saw his neck vein throb. His gray eyes misted over, but he remained silent.
“That said, however …” Dekohta held up his hand to quiet his people. “I admire this lad’s courage to do his utmost for his clan. It is not an easy thing to survive a night in these woods after Elpis-setting without proper training. So I propose a compromise.”
“Compromise?!” exclaimed those at table.
Dekohta looked hard at Aaric. “Do you know how to throw a hatchet, young man?”
“I…” Aaric glanced at his right arm in its sling before returning the great man’s gaze. “I know how to throw, sir,” he said.
“Then I propose a test.” Dekohta reached into his belt and pulled out a hatchet unlike any Clara had ever seen. It seemed to be made from a solid piece of clear crystal. A bluish light emanated faintly from its razor sharp edge. “This is the Omnia stone discovered by our tribal ancestors. It has been passed down from generation to generation, never blunting, never splintering, ever sharp. It has felled a thousand trees and killed a thousand beasts. It has never left our borders. And I will not trade it to anyone who cannot wield it. But if you can prove you can use this weapon, I will trade it for your clan heirloom for a limited time. Do you understand?”
“I do,” Aaric said with a slight tremor in his voice.
“And you will submit to the test?” Dekohta asked.
Clara held her breath.
“Then to the practice field!” Dekohta declared.
“Hurrah!” shouted several councilmen as they rose from their seats. “Justice will decide!” Others sighed and shook their heads as they left their meal and followed their chief and chieftainess to the great clearing.
“Well, this should be entertaining,” Chaska said with a chuckle as he turned toward Clara and Aaric. “We haven't had an exhibition in ages. Come on, you two. The practice targets aren't far.”
News spread quickly through the tribe regarding the challenge, and people of all ages wound their way through the bonfires toward the practice field, chattering with anticipation.
The smells of wood smoke, roasting game, and dewy grass wafted up Clara's nostrils. But she hardly noticed as she walked mechanically beside the limping Almitian. She felt nearly sick with apprehension. How the heck is this going to work if Aaric can't use his good arm? “Aaric!” she said in a low voice as they followed Chaska. “What are you going to do?”
He shook his head. “It’s not ideal. But what choice do I have?”
“There's the field,” Chaska said as he pointed ahead. “Good luck!”
Aaric took a deep breath and went ahead in his shifting side-to-side manner after the Silvan leadership, leaving Clara alone with her fears.
Chaska flashed her a cocky grin. “Clara, would you like to sit with me to watch the fun from a front row ..?”
“I’m sorry, Chaska,” Clara cut him off as she started following after her friend. “I’ve got to help Aaric.”
Chaska, apparently unused to being refused by a woman, blinked in surprise. Then he drew himself up with a nonchalant shrug, and said, “He needs all the help he can get.”
The marksman targets lay only a stone’s throw from the network of bonfires. The land rose along the far side of the field, making a natural amphitheater. Now aware of the contest, all the Silvan people — at least seven thousand strong — found places in the grass from which to watch the contest. Powerful lights from somewhere in the canopy illuminated the targets – hewn tree trunks only about three feet wide with concentric circles and red bullseyes in their centers.
Clara trotted to catch up with Aaric, but knew she couldn't give much assistance; she couldn’t even sink a ball of paper into the wastebasket. All she could do was lend Aaric her presence and sympathy – neither of which she was certain would be helpful.
By the time the two of them arrived at the targets, several young Silvans were doing trick shots for the crowd. One turned cartwheels and threw perfect bullseyes each time. Another tossed two hatchets at once; they went end over end in one full rotation, then stuck into the wood. One woman stood on her hands upside down, took aim, and threw a hatchet at a target; she, too, got a perfect bullseye to the roar of Silvan applause.
“Alright, alright. Settle down now!” Dekohta commanded, holding up his hands for quiet. “Our Almitian visitor has requested the loan of our beloved Omnia stone for a noble cause.”
The crowd murmured, astounded.
“Unlike other heirlooms,” continued the chief, “ours is more than just a piece of jewelry. It is a force to be reckoned with.” He held the crystal hatchet above his head.
The crowd shouted in agreement. Dekohta smiled as he waited for the cheering to die down.
“But I have agreed to the exchange the Omnia hatchet for a limited time on condition that our visitor prove he can wield it.”
Apprehension and skepticism rumbled through the people.
Clara looked at Aaric and noticed he was shaking. Despite the cool of the evening, perspiration gathered in droplets on his forehead. Her heart swelled with pity. He's afraid.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...” Aaric murmured to himself as Dekohta continued with his speech. He adjusted his arm in its sling. “Do you believe in God, Clara?”
“What?” Clara tensed.
“It's a simple question.” His gray eyes met her own.
Clara licked her dry lips. “On Earth, I would have said no,” she confessed. “But with all I've seen on Elpis 7 … I’m starting to doubt my doubts.”
“That’s enough for now,” Aaric said. “Please ask God to help me.” And with that, he turned and walked see-saw-like to meet Chief Dekohta at the field's center.
The crowd cheered as their chief took the gleaming hatchet in his hand and turned it in several circles for the crowd’s amusement. Then he tossed it over his head, and with hardly a glance at the target, hurled it at astonishing speed. The weapon sliced through the air end over end until it hit the bullseye with a thud. The crowd roared as Dekohta strode toward the target, dislodged the hatchet with a smile, and walked back toward Aaric who looked very pale indeed.
Clara clasped her hands under her chin. Oh God! If you're there ...
Clara stopped, unnerved, yet oddly comforted at the same time by this new inner voice. Well … please help Aaric! She concluded.
Deep in her spirit, she felt the resonance of gentle laughter – like the warmth of a sunbeam.
I already have.
Clara watched in silence as Dekohta gripped the hatchet by the head and held out the handle toward Aaric. In the great man’s bear-like hands, the hatchet seemed like a child’s toy. But now, as Aaric slowly removed his bandaged arm from its sling to accept the heirloom, the hatchet seemed like a full-sized battle ax.
Wincing in pain, Aaric extended his arm and grasped the handle. His hand dipped several inches when Dekohta released his hold on the weapon.
“He can’t even lift it!” a voice jeered from the crowd.
Several people laughed.
“Maybe you should stick to tossing horse shoes, Almitian!” another called.
More laughter. Even Dekohta smiled in spite of himself.
Clara could feel her blood pulsing hotly in her ears. Come on, Aaric! she willed.
Aaric held out his bandaged arm and looked down the length of the hatchet at eye level, keeping the blade perfectly perpendicular to the ground. Then he brought back his arm over his head — and cried out in pain as the hatchet dropped behind his feet. His bandaged arm went limp. Ashamed, he looked down at the grass as he tucked his hand back into its sling.
The crowd was not kind. Taunts broke out in torrents. Children pointed their fingers. Old women shook their heads. Young men scoffed.
Clara clenched her fists as fire shot through her veins. She wanted to slap the smiles off everyone's faces as she stomped out to the center of the field.
Aaric looked at her in despair, his gray eyes watering. “I … I can’t. My arm hasn't fully healed ...”
“That’s enough!” Clara cut him off more sternly than she’d intended. “Aaric Alden, son of Thomas and Teresa Alden, how many arms do you have?!”
Aaric stared at her as she bent down and lifted the hatchet; it felt solid and cool to the touch. She placed the handle in Aaric’s left hand.
“It’s not ideal …” Clara said. “But it's enough for now.”
Aaric blinked as if waking from a bad dream and looked at Clara in wonder. Then he knit his brows over his nose and grasped the hatchet firmly.
Clara turned and walked back to the sidelines. She watched Aaric extend his left arm and look down the hatchet's length at eye level amid the teasing crowd. He shut his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, raised the weapon over his head, and let it fly.
Aaric opened a wary eye.
Clara blinked, her heart in her throat.
The crowd sat in disbelief.
Dekohta's jaw hung ajar. Then he threw his head back in laughter and declared, “Well, I'll be!”
The crowd, forgetting its former criticism, now shouted with glee! The scoffers shook their heads in amazement while the women hugged each other and children pointed in excitement. No one ridiculed the young man with the limp as he slowly made his way toward the target and unwedged the hatchet from the bullseye. Several young men in the crowd ran toward the visitor — a rustic Almitian! — to congratulate him on his unanticipated success, Chaska among them.
Clara giggled and sniffed. Thank you, she whispered in her spirit.
You are most welcome, Clara. Always, answered the voice.
Then Aaric, his own eyes brimming, gazed at Clara from across the field through the gathered crowd. He bowed his head in her direction.
Clara nodded back and let her joy drip freely down her rosy cheeks.
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