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Ephemeral: Chapter 32
One of the perks about living on an ephemeral planet is that no matter how exhausted you are when you lie down, you always wake up feeling as if you'd slept for months. This feeling and realization no longer held terror for Clara. Before the first rays of Elpis-rising, she'd already showered, dressed, and made her bed. By the time the lavender-orange hues swirled in the wakening sky above, she'd finished breakfast and was walking on the suspended wooden bridge through the tree canopy. The night's rest had also had a transformative effect on Aaric. The Almitian walked a little taller, breathed a little easier, and now swung both arms by his side as if his surgery were a long-faded memory.
“All I can say,” Chaska continued as he led the way to the Silva tribal meeting house, “is you two gave us a night to remember for generations to come. To think, a one-handed Almitian throwing a bullseye on his first go – with his left hand, no less!”
“I had a bit of help.” Aaric smiled modestly.
Clara beamed with pride. Things seemed to be going their way at last, but she felt a gnawing concern that the longer they lingered, the worse Raven would become. They needed to get that hatchet and return to Agilis quickly if they were to help Almitas. She tried not to think of what could be happening to Mother Alden and the others that very morning.
The wooden meeting house stood about three times the size of the other Silva dwellings and rested on the eaves of three great trees. Even before Chaska knocked on the wooden door carved with flowering vines and winged birds around its border, it opened from the inside and a scout bid them welcome. An overhead shaft of light illuminated the gathered tribal council who sat around an irregularly-shaped wooden table made from the large-grained cross-section of a single tree about ten feet in diameter.
“Welcome, the victorious Almitian!” Chief Dekohta hailed with a raised hand as Aaric approached.
Aaric fairly blushed at this address. “Thank you, Chief Dekohta. Chieftainess.” Aaric bowed and Clara again attempted a curtsy.
Dekohta grinned with a twinkle in his eye. “You are a surprising young man! And I had you pegged as a mere farmer. Tell me, do people in your tribe often practice hatchet throwing?”
Aaric shook his head. “No, sir. We do not have hatchets – only axes.”
Dekohta raised his eyebrows. “You throw axes in your tribe?”
“Sorry, no,” Aaric said, “What I meant is, we only use axes for splitting logs.”
Dekohta eyed the young man curiously. “But I asked if you could throw a hatchet last night, and you said you could.”
“I said I knew how to throw,” Aaric corrected gently. “But I'd never held a hatchet before. I do, however, help guard our livestock back home and often hit things from a distance.”
Dekohta grinned even more broadly. “Very well, then. I agreed to trade clan heirlooms for a limited period of time. What token of the Almitas tribe have you brought?”
Aaric drew the green-gemmed ring from his finger and placed it in Dekohta's outstretched palm.
“Oh.” The chief sounded disappointed. He turned to his wife. “This appears to be an ornament for you, my dear. It won't fit my finger.”
One of the councilmen snickered.
“It’s more than a decoration,” Aaric said. “Perhaps you'd like me to demonstrate its value?”
“By all means.” The chief handed the small ring back to the Almitian.
Aaric looked around and spotted a drooping potted plant near one of the windows. Its broad, wide leaves curled slightly at the edges. “May I borrow that plant?”
Dekohta nodded to one of the scouts. He hoisted it from its resting place and set it on the wood-planked floor before Aaric.
Once again, Aaric bowed his head and pressed the ring into the soil. For a couple seconds, nothing happened. One of the council members yawned. Another muttered something along the lines of, “I told you so.”
Then the leaves of the plant quivered.
Clara smiled as the Silvans' eyes opened wide.
The plant's leaves unfurled and deepened to a dark green as tendrilled shoots leapt from its center. As if in time-lapse photography, the shoots quickly grew round green buds which blossomed into yellow and orange cup-like flowers. These promptly fell off as elongated pink fruits swelled from underneath them, ripening as if by magic.
No one was yawning now.
Aaric removed the ring from the soil and stood to face the awed Chief and his council.
Dekohta hit his muscular thigh and laughed heartily. “You’re full of surprises, Almitian! I’ll take it!” He happily received the heirloom and took his wife's hand in his own. “I entrust this ring to our Chieftainess for safekeeping.”
She smiled as her husband slid the ring on the middle finger of her right hand. “And I shall keep it well until the Omnia stone returns.” She extended her hand to marvel at the gem's green sparkle. “Is there any trick to using it?” she asked Aaric.
“All you need do is press it into the soil near the plant you wish to develop and thank our Maker for the growth He gives.”
“Does it work on people?” the chieftainess asked.
Aaric shook his head. “Sorry, just plants.”
“Including trees?” Chief Dekohta asked.
“Excellent! Darling, see what you can do with those boobaloos over there!” He pointed to another pot of droppy, tired-looking yellow flowers.
The Chieftainess smiled. “There will be plenty of time for that after you trade our Silvan heirloom, my dear.”
“Oh, yes. I almost forgot.” Chief Dekohta stood and carefully removed the crystal hatchet from his belt. He held the weapon tenderly for a moment before grasping the leather-sheathed blade to offer the handle to Aaric. “Be careful with it, lad. Once you let it fly, you cannot change its course. Aim carefully.”
Aaric accepted the hatchet with both hands. “I will, Chief Dekohta. On behalf of my clan, thank you.”
One of the older council members cleared his white bearded throat. “Speaking of your clan, I do have one issue to raise. Now you have our heirloom, how exactly do you intend to use it?”
All eyes focused on Aaric and Clara.
“To destroy the Fire Stone, of course,” Aaric said.
“So I gathered. But how are you to accomplish that? You can’t very well march into Agilis, yank the Fire Stone from their leader's neck, and give it a good whack, can you? And what assurance do we have that our priceless heirloom will be returned?”
Aaric twirled the hatchet around in his hands. “To be honest, sir, I didn’t expect to make it this far in our mission.”
The old man folded his arms. “So you have no plan, then?”
“Not yet,” Aaric said quietly.
“Chief Dekohta,” another council woman raised her hand. “The Omnia stone is our only safeguard against the Silexians. If these Almitians get captured, and the guards confiscate our heirloom, we place our own tribe at risk.”
This isn't looking good … Clara stepped closer to Aaric.
Dekohta frowned. “My word is my bond. I’ll not break my bond out of fear of what may happen. This Almitian has done everything asked of him. He’s proven himself capable of wielding responsibility for our heirloom.”
Chaska cleared his throat. “If I may, Chief Dekohta, I might have a solution.”
“I'm listening, Chaska.”
“Why not send a scout with these Almitians to safeguard their passage through the forest? Then he or she could follow from a distance and retrieve the heirloom should it fall into enemy hands.”
“Sounds reasonable. Do you have a scout in mind?” Dekohta asked.
“Myself, if that's agreeable.”
Clara looked at Chaska in surprise. He winked at her.
“But I thought we said we wouldn’t risk our men in a war against the Silexians!” the bearded councilman protested.
Dekohta considered. “We will not actively engage in war, but I will not have our greatest asset become Silexian property. Chaska, you’ve already proven yourself a worthy protector. I appoint you to help our guests through the forest and to keep a watchful eye on our heirloom. If anything happens to it, you are to retrieve the Omnia stone. But you are not in any circumstances to initiate conflict or shed first blood. We do not want to put our own clan at risk of war. Understand?”
Chaska bowed. “Yes, sir.”
Knock! Knock! Knock! Someone outside pounded on the meeting house door.
“Enter!” Dekohta called.
A tall man with silvered hair and beard crossed the floor in a handful of steps and addressed the council. “Chief Dekohta, our drones have picked up some disturbing Silexian activity over the Almitas border.”
Oh no! Clara tensed.
“Go on,” Dekohta said.
“Silexian troops marched into Almitas shortly before Elpis-rising and appear to be facilitating a mass evacuation.”
Dekohta frowned. “Evacuation?”
“They aren't attacking?” Aaric asked, trying to keep his voice steady.
“No,” the head scout looked toward the visitor. “More like herding them onto hovercraft and land vehicles. There's thousands of people waiting to load, yet.”
“Where are they taking them?” Dekohta asked, his face inscrutable.
“North of the city toward the photopetrium quarry. They should get everyone there before Elpis-setting, I think. And there's more activity at the quarry. The guards are constructing some sort of metal platform at the base of the nearby hill. It's as if they're preparing for a large assembly.”
“Is that all?”
Aaric, Clara, and the rest of the tribal council kept silent as they watched the Silva leader consider his response.
Chief Dekohta glanced briefly at his chieftainess, then raised his hand in decision. “We will not engage militarily at this time. But I want you to keep me apprised of all Silexian movements and station a platoon in the forest across from the quarry. Have them at the ready should the Silexians cross our borders.”
“Thank you. You are dismissed.”
The head scout bowed and left the room as quickly as he'd come.
Clara and Aaric exchanged an anxious look. Time was running out for the Almitian tribe.
“Chaska,” Chief Dekohta said, “take our guests on horseback along the fastest route to the quarry. If you go quickly, you should make it to the new canyon bridge by Elpis-setting.”
Dekohta turned to Aaric and Clara. “I pray for your favor and wish you all success. You are a noble individual, Aaric Alden son of Thomas and Teresa Alden. You do your clan credit. Just remember what I said about the Omnia hatchet.”
“I will, sir. Thank you, truly.” Aaric bowed and Clara curtsied. Then they both turned to follow Chaska to the horses.
“Godspeed!” called the Chieftainess after them.
“Thank you,” Clara said with a farewell wave. As she crossed the threshold, she heard the skeptical councilman say behind her, “I still think this is a grave mistake.”
Then Dekohta’s voice: “It would be a graver one to break our word.”
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