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The War of Peace - Part 1
    by Trina Marie Phillips

The War of Peace - Part 1
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Something smelled wrong. Ardam flared his nose flange and sniffed the air. Amidst the scent of trees and sun was something so pungent it almost made him retch. The realization that it was coming from the direction of their breeding grounds set his seven hearts to knotting in descending sequence. The last one pounded a furious beat. It was only the second birthing season since he became Paramount and the future of the Family was at stake.

He let out a keening wail in the communal dialect and the caravan of five Families shambled to a stop behind him. The breeding grounds were over the next rise. If they had been destroyed he didn't want to inflict his fellow Cranthers with the vision. No doubt they smelled what he did, but if there was something horrible to be seen, it was his burden to bear.

He sprinted up the hill before his advisors could break from their Families. In past seasons he had made this run for pleasure. Now, he did so out of panic. The soft dirt squeezed through his toes begging to be enjoyed, only to be kicked off the backs of his six pounding feet.

Cresting the ridge, the vision he saw was as unexpected as it was abhorrent. The breeding ground had been invaded. He made fists of his three right hands. His first instinct was to race down and protect the seedlings but the sight was so bizarre he had to stop and assess the situation.

Stark red structures rose from the ground. They were made of hard edges and were as tall as trees. The settlement bore a resemblance to the homes of the Sanai in the south, but taller and more rigid.

Perfectly straight, black trails ran between the red structures. Ardam had never seen dirt as black as that. Could the seedlings still be alive underneath it? Where had it come from? More importantly, with the Birthing Ritual only six days away, could their children be saved?

Ardam squinted his fourth eye, his distance eye, and saw the beings that inhabited this strange town. They were tall and had only two legs and two arms. One head. At least they had that in common. But why so few limbs? They couldn't be very fast like that. Maybe they were strong instead, like the Oloths in the Doron mountains. The Oloths were easy to trick, but this new race had built a town in less than two seasons. He didn't think they were so dimwitted.

Footsteps rumbled up the ridge behind him, his advisors. He contemplated stopping them, easing the shock, but they would have to see eventually. Let them discover the situation as he had.

xThe five advisors lined up along his left side according to protocol, in descending order of the size of their families. Raychit was on his immediate left. She'd held that position since Ardam became Paramount and was his closest confidante. Sometimes Raychit's fiery personality had to be tempered, but she also kept Ardam from being overly cautious. A grinding emerged deep in Raychit's throat. She was angry. So was Ardam, but analysis was needed, not anger.

The rest of the advisors responded each to their manner. Kaliff huffed through her voluminous throat pouch, Ezcar keened in a barely audible range. Terron growled from deep in his round belly and Hefkot whistled nervously with every exhalation while scuffing his right front foot. Ardam stepped around to meet up with Hefkot pulling the line into a circle. It placed him next to the lowest ranking member of the caucus, a reminder that the distance from top to bottom was not so great.

Ardam whistled three low pitches and one high one to officially start the meeting.

"There is a chance that the seedlings survive. We must find out," Ardam said. If they were dead, the Family would be doomed to end with last season's generation. The ground held the memories and experiences of each batch of seedlings. It was those memories that guided the next generation to birth. Without the memories in the ground, no more seedlings could be born.

No surprise that Raychit was the first to speak.

"How could they survive that?" She pointed two of her right arms toward the town. She had eight arms total, two more than most Cranthers. The extra arms definitely gave her advantages in certain contests. Her seed contribution was showing up in every generation, making the Family stronger.

Terron spoke next. His coloring was more green than brown though it rarely appeared in the children. Occasionally a child would be born green though and Terron took pride in that. "We set them deeper than any predator can dig and our Family's husks have always been strong. My fear is that the ground has been poisoned. The stench they emanate is much like heated ruddleweed, and we all know how dangerous that is."

Ardam sniffed the air again; Terron was right. If the intruders did bear poison as a defense, then his next request of the caucus could be deadly.

"These beings are organized. We should be able to reason with them. I will approach the town to try and learn more. Will you join me?"

Hefkot spoke first. "We can't go down there! What if they want to kill us?"

Ezcar clasped his hands in agreement. "Maybe we should observe them for a few days."

"The Birthing Ritual is nearly upon us. There's no time to observe," Raychit said.

"Shall I venture down alone?" Ardam asked. "It is my risk to take. I will not shirk my duty."

Kaliff stepped forward. "I will stand with you, Paramount."

Raychit and Terron stepped forward as well. Ardam focused his second and third eyes on Hefkot and Ezcar. It would not be right to present a partial caucus. Their reluctance melted under his gaze and they acquiesced. Despite having led the Family for only eight seasons, Ardam was well aware of the importance of protocol and diplomacy. His father had kept him abreast of inter-Family dealings from a young age and he had seen both the successes and failures of the diplomatic process.

"Go tell your families the nature of our task and tell them to remain here," Ardam said. He looked out on the five families that numbered over three hundred adult Cranthers. There were another thirty children that survived from last summer's birthing. He had been the head of the largest Family when the old Paramount passed, and now they were all his Family. But being Paramount also set him apart.

The advisors returned and the caucus made their way, single-file down the hillside. Halfway to the base, Ardam heard the sighing and wailing of his Family. He looked back to see them atop the ridge. They had not stayed where they were told, but with the safety of the next generation at stake he understood. After their initial shock, the Family started to descend, following the track the caucus had created.

Ardam paused and huffed a warning, but the father in the lead was Raychit's spouse and he refused to stop. Ardam realized this was not a challenge; it was proof of their unity. Ardam would have taken the risk alone if they had so chosen. Instead, they would all protect the seedlings. Having his Family stand with him calmed his hearts and settled his mind. He continued on.

When he neared the town, Ardam stopped a tree's length from its edge. While it still smelled bad, the aroma did not seem harmful. The Family fell into line on either side of him. Keeping the same distance, they spread out to cover half the perimeter of the town. The children stood behind their elders, creating a staggered second row with each Cranther touching the next. Except for Ardam. He stood alone.

Up close, the town had even more peculiar features. In the structures there were holes covered by something as transparent as a kirwasps wings. It was incredible to see the effect that large. Kirwasps rarely got bigger than his hand.

Through the holes, Ardam could see more two-legged beings. They were watching him. Even from up high they stared down at his Family, pointing and conversing. His Family also huffed and whistled in wonder at these strange beings and their strange town. Ardam let out a short, high whistle and they quieted themselves to a low chatter.

Unlike the beings in the structures, the ones on the ground fled deeper into the town. Their wails and calls were of a squealing nature, like newborns or wounded animals. From here, Ardam could see their skin ran in different shades of brown. Their bodies were covered by colorful fabric like the Fenri of the east wore, but what he could see of their skin was smooth. There were no layers and little texture. He wondered if they could derive pleasure from bonding with such simple bodies.

Ardam hissed and whistled, telling his Family to let him advance alone. With a final growl, it became a command. On this he would not compromise.

He stepped forward until he came to the edge of the black dirt. It looked solid, like rock. Kneeling, he touched it and found it very warm and smooth. The black surface sat atop the breeding ground like a woven sleeping mat, but three times thicker. Ardam moved his hand to touch the real ground, the dirt under which their seedlings lay. Closing his eyes he stilled himself and listened. He felt heartbeats, hundreds of tiny heartbeats pattering in syncopated rhythm.

Pure joy - the seedlings were alive! He let out a long, high pitched whistle. The Family whistled back in frenetic celebration.

From ahead, a group of the two-legged beings approached. There were three of them, half a caucus. Was this a slight, or did they not have enough high-ranking members to constitute a full caucus? Ardam stood and gave a short huff. His advisors advanced to line up behind him. The two-legs slowed and then stopped an arm's length away.

The darkest brown and tallest of the three stood in front; Ardam assumed he was the Paramount. He was a full head taller than Ardam. The other two flanked him and stayed a step behind. They both held something in their hands. One, the lightest skinned of the three, had a black branch with straight edges. It reminded Ardam of the hard edges of the false dirt. It did not look like an effective club but he did not know what else it might be. The other had dark fur on his face and something round and red, like a bessa fruit, in his hand.

Their Paramount tried looking around Ardam, as if he were evaluating his line of advisors. He brought his attention back just before the digression became insulting. The two-leg focused his gaze on Ardam and started speaking. His voice was soft but resonant, not unpleasant, but like the rest of their appearance, very smooth. He supposed the lack of layers and textures did not lend itself to more complex forms of communication.

When the two-leg finished there was silence. Ardam let twenty-one respectful heartbeats pass before beginning his own speech. He was under no illusion that they would understand him. Their sounds were incomprehensible to his ears. If in his tone, he could gain their trust so they would allow for a Barter of Body, then they would be able to communicate.

"I am Ardam, Paramount of my Cranther Family. We are both pleased and dismayed at your arrival. Usually we are happy to meet new races and look forward to favorable relations. But you have settled upon our breeding ground and are endangering the lives of a whole generation of our offspring and the future of my Family. I must insist that you relocate."

The two-legs moved their faces around in patterns Ardam didn't understand. The one with the red fruit tilted his head, first to one side, then the other. There was discussion within their half-caucus. Ardam would not consult his advisors; they were only present out of courtesy to the two-legs.

When they quieted, the fur-faced one stepped forward, and offered the red fruit. Ardam watched. Their Paramount did not seem offended at the breach in protocol. Ardam was not sure whether to accept a gift from the usurper. Would it be offensive? If so, wouldn't the Paramount have stopped him?

Out of respect for the Paramount, Ardam did not accept the gift. He looked over at the light-skinned two-leg. He had kept his place and said little. Proper. Ardam liked that. The fur-faced one stepped back.

There was more discussion between them. Now the light-skinned one was more animated, raising his voice which was gruffer than the rest, and moving his arms. The Paramount tried to stop his advisor's limbs from flailing. The movements reminded him of Raychit when she felt passionate about something.

They resettled in their original formation, but this time the Paramount stepped forward. He extended his hand toward Ardam and bared his teeth again. Ardam looked carefully at the opposing gestures. One was the offer for the Barter of Body, the other a threat. These two-legs were so different from any race he'd met. Did either gesture mean what Ardam thought?

Regardless, the Barter would help end the confusion. Ardam reached out his largest hand, easily grasping the two-leg's smooth skin. His long, light brown fingers wrapped around the lower part of the dark one's arm in a web of contrast. It was time for the exchange.

Ardam extended the two barbs from under his wrist, digging them into their Paramount's skin. The two-leg yelled. One barb accepted fluid from his body while the other offered a part of himself. It was not a pleasant sensation, but for their Paramount to show such an expressive reaction diminished his strength. Then Ardam realized that their Paramount had not responded with his own exchange method. All of the races he had met in his travels had some form of body exchange. Did these two-legs not? They must be from truly far away.

The Paramount yanked his arm back, cradling it. Ardam's white blood and the two-leg's red dribbled from the wounds. The light-skinned one stepped forward, yelling and pointing the black stick at him. Ardam remained perfectly still, trying not to look dangerous. He realized now that they saw the Barter as an attack.

The Paramount yelled something and they backed off, pulling away from Ardam. The one with the stick walked backwards, eyes scanning the Cranthers. They disappeared into one of the buildings. Ardam had made a mistake.

Looking after the two-legs, he worried whether the Barter would work. Usually he felt the effects immediately. But then, the partner in the trade usually stayed in the area where he could feel his heartbeat. Did he need to be near the two-leg for his donation to have the desired effect?

The answer came when his hearts suddenly slowed down. He bent over in shock. Six beats each at the pace of the donor before he was released. He took a long, slow breath and let it waffle out through his throat pouch. Ardam knew then that the two-leg had only one large heart and that it had to beat hard to do its job.

The exchange into his mind would be next. Thoughts swirled, creeping in, slowly coalescing into intelligible segments. The patterns were straightforward and not difficult to decipher. With such simple bodies it was no surprise, they had fewer complexities to deal with. Their patterns came in twos, much like the Cranthers came in sixes. He had Bartered with enough races to know that it was not the number of limbs that generally decided numerical structures in the mind, but the number required to mate.

Looking at the town, he was impressed that they were able to accomplish so much when they only carried material from two individuals of their species. Of course, he could be wrong about their breeding habits. These two-legs were proving to be very different from anything he'd encountered before.

Finally, the last part would come when he met the Paramount once again. The question still remained whether he would be able to read his energy. Understanding the patterns and comprehending the words were two different things. The patterns gave him the ability to learn their language, but it would take time and study. With the seedlings so close to birth, time was one thing he didn't have. Reading his energy and using the patterns simultaneously would allow him to understand much of what was said. And once he comprehended that, he should be able to speak with any of the two-legs.

Bartering always distracted him from his surroundings while he adjusted to the new information. Ardam looked up now to see the two-legs overflowing the large building their Paramount had retreated into. It was a raucous gathering. No doubt they were discussing what just happened. To have the whole town participate seemed ridiculous. How would they ever decide anything? Ardam knew what he must do. He signaled for his advisors to follow. He had made an error in dealing with the two-legs and he would not fail to show them respect.

The black trail was smooth under his feet and it felt dead. There was no connection with the soil. Its rigidity made it unpleasant to walk upon and it was assembled in pieces, like the tiled walls of Menderey. While everything about the two-legs seemed different, he found similarities as well. Ardam realized his mind was simply trying to understand based on things he knew.

As they approached the unruly crowd, silence rippled through it. So many of their bodies so close made the air smell dank and salty. Ardam paused and a walkway opened up in the crowd while they backed away. A small two-leg, a child, ran up to him and touched his second right knee. It was amusing. He reached down to touch the little one's head. Someone screamed and ran over, snatching the child away. Ardam studied their faces. It seemed likely they were scared. It would be good to understand what that looked like. Fear could be both a dangerous emotion or a helpful one.

Until he and the caucus arrived, the two-legs had all been facing one direction. Ardam walked in that direction until he came to their Paramount. Not wanting to appear aggressive, he stopped a full body-length away. From this distance he could still feel enough of the Paramount's energy for the Barter to take effect. Even now, their whispers were filtering through and some words were making sense.

The Paramount stared at him but did not back away. Ardam could feel his nerves and his heartbeat. Despite crying out earlier, he was stoic now. Good. He was strong. His arm was wrapped in a white cloth, but there was a splotch of red oozing through. From the left, the one with the black stick stepped between Ardam and the Paramount. The Paramount said a few words and the two-leg stepped back, but not as far as he had been. Fortunately, the language was starting to come to him through not only the Paramount's energy, but the energy of all the bodies in the room.

Ardam used his singing tone, it seemed to best approximate their voices. "I am sorry," he paused, looking for the words, "to hurt you."

The crowd muttered energetically in response to his words. Had he said them right? The Paramount held a hand up and the crowd quieted. Then he took one step forward.

"Hello. My name is Toumani Shaw and I am the Mayor of this town. I think we started off poorly," he said, his speech slow. That was good; it gave Ardam a better chance to evaluate the patterns. Toumani Shaw turned his arm to show more of the blood. It was puffy and swollen. "Was this a greeting to you?"

"Yes." Ardam said, speaking slower than the Paramount, choosing his words carefully. "I thought you . . . offered a Barter of the Body."

The Mayor bared his teeth again, but his energy was not threatening. In fact, it was more relaxed. Ardam corrected his interpretation of the expression. The Mayor spoke and still managed to keep his teeth showing. "There are bound to be misunderstandings when we meet new people. May I ask your name?"

Moments passed while he figured out the translation. Of course, the most basic of exchanges. "Ardam." He slipped into his guttural pronunciation, then corrected and repeated it in the singing tone. Remembering his speech from earlier, he tried to translate it and addressed the two-legs. "I am Ardam, Paramount of my Cranther Family. We are both pleased and troubled at your arrival. Often we are happy to meet new races and look ahead to good works. But you have built upon our breeding ground and are endangering the lives of a whole generation of our children and the future of my Family. I must insist that you move your town."

The expression on the Mayor's face changed. His brow creased and he squinted slightly. The sides of his mouth turned down. His heartbeat sped up as well and he shook his head. From his energy, Ardam noted this as a bad expression.

"Ardam, we need this home. We are refugees from our planet, Earth. This . . ."

He interrupted. "I do not understand, ref-u-gees." He didn't quite understand planet either but it did not feel so important of a word.

Toumani Shaw paused, then restated. "We are outcasts because we do not agree with our world's government. They have forced us to leave and exiled us here. We have no means of transport and nowhere else to call home."

After figuring out the translation, this didn't make sense to Ardam. Why would their leaders allow them to do this? They could multiply and come back to make war. Ah, but what if they were of the Family and the leaders did not have the heart to kill their own? He looked at the crowd. Their faces were so different. It didn't seem like they could all be from one Family. But maybe that was a consequence of a two-mate system.

"So your own Family sees you as dangerous?" Ardam asked.

The Mayor paused. The line over his eyes angled down but it was a subtle expression. Even with the Barter, Ardam could not interpret what it meant.

"Dangerous to their oppressive ideas. We had different reasons for speaking out, but any who protested were rounded up and sent away. We are not the only exiles, just the only ones to be stranded here."

Ardam definitely did not understand the two-leg Family's reasoning.

"And how did you become leader of these . . . refugees?"

"They chose me. At home I was a spiritual leader. For us, that invokes a certain amount of trust."

Ardam studied the power flow surrounding the words spiritual leader. They seemed important. While the meaning felt similar to a mystic or sage, the Mayor's energy was much calmer than any mystic Ardam had ever met.

"What kind of leader are you now?"

The Mayor showed his teeth again and huffed slightly. Ardam braced himself anticipating a physical attack. None came, nor did the feel of a threat through the Barter.

"I am a leader that in a strange place is trying to protect my Family, keep them safe and make them strong."

Ardam understood this, but it did not change the problem.

"I am sorry for your . . . difficulty, but our seedlings are under this ground. They must be born."

There were more sounds from the crowd. The appearance on their faces was so mixed that Ardam didn't think they were all feeling the same way. Why would they?

"Ardam, we are not able to move. We used all of the resources we were given to settle here." Toumani exhaled heavily. "We have been here six months. There was no sign of habitation when we arrived."

Months? Surely he didn't mean seasons. His energy was not strong enough about the issue for the Barter to interpret the meaning. That no one was here when they arrived, he must have been referring to the rainy season.

"We were in the south, where it is warm and dry."

"Yes, the rain was vicious when we arrived," the Mayor said.

Ardam studied Toumani's face. He needed to determine the words that would sway him. "Do you not care about our children?" Only a most evil adversary would not. If these beings were evil, it would make his choice of actions much clearer. While Ardam's Family were not warriors, their allies, the Nemek Family, were. He could call upon their contract and have an army in a few days' time.

Mayor Toumani Shaw extended his hand toward someone off to his left. A small child was handed to him. She looked at Ardam and buried her face against the Mayor's shoulder. "We have our own children to worry about."

Not an evil answer. Maybe he could use the Nemek for intimidation. Maybe there were possibilities he hadn't seen yet. This was not beyond talking, but no more could be accomplished now. Since the Mayor had been honorable in his dealings, it was only reasonable that Ardam be honorable about his intent.

"You should prepare to leave. I will not allow you to stay and harm our children."

The light one with the stick stepped forward. "Look, we're here and we have the blasters to hold this land."

Ardam felt anxiety from the Mayor and while the word blasters was not entirely clear to him, he had no doubt the statement was a threat. It was obvious where the danger with the two-legs resided. But Toumani had the power. He set the child down, put his hand on the other's shoulder and pulled him back.

"Let us evaluate and discuss the situation amongst ourselves. We do not wish to harm your children but I am at a loss for a solution."

It seemed he and Mayor Toumani Shaw were not so different; but if they were equally determined, there would be conflict.

"Yes," Ardam said. "I will return in three days. Let us hope we can come to an accord." Three days would be enough to call the Nemek, enough to give Ardam some options.

The Mayor surprised him by extending his hand. It was a significant show of faith. Ardam took it and did not extend the barbs. "I hope we can be friends," Toumani said.

At that moment, Ardam did not want to summon the Nemek -- but he had to protect the seedlings. Whatever plan he came up with, he hoped he did not have to hurt these beings. As long as Toumani Shaw remained in control he knew violence would be a last resort. He did not know enough about their society to guess whether that was likely to happen.

Ardam turned and retraced his steps out of the cavernous structure, the caucus followed silently behind. There was much planning to be done.

Late in the night the moons sat low in the indigo sky. The caucus sat in a rough circle in the middle of the Family's camp. Two dozen branflee sticks surrounded them. The sticks were dipped in the insect's own jelly; the luminous bugs let off a green glow and a cacophony of clicking sounds while they gathered and ate. It not only provided light for the gathering, but a screen of privacy. No one outside the circle would hear them unless the debate turned into a shouting match, and Ardam had not yet allowed that to happen.

A skin of klem wine was passed around and each member poured their own cup. Ardam was trying to put the caucus at ease. He didn't think they were going to like his idea of taking the young ones to the next meeting with the two-legs. To have them relaxed when he introduced this would be much better.

They drank and the skin was passed around again. Raychit looked at him and from the curl of her ear and the set of her rightmost eye, it seemed his friend had figured out his plan to loosen them up. It was a knowing look, but Raychit had enough faith in him to let it pass. The third time the wine went around he noticed that Raychit poured little more than a swallow, much like he himself had been doing. His friend was not going to ruin his plan but she would not succumb to it either. If it landed to her when Ardam passed, Raychit would make a good Paramount.

"Mayor Toumani Shaw is to be respected in our dealings with the two-legs. With that in mind, what are your thoughts?" Ardam asked the group.

Raychit spoke first. "With all respect, we must summon the Nemek. While the Mayor has been honorable, I do not trust his cohorts, especially the pale one."

The group grunted assent.

"I have already considered this and I regretfully agree," Ardam said. "My friend, will you be the messenger that brings them here? But I must ask that you do it with my fourth heart, the one that holds my compassion. Make them understand that they will not attack unless called upon. They are truly our last choice of action."

"We will owe them whether they fight, or not," Ezcar said.

"And if they stay too long we will have to protect our spouses," Hefkot added. Ardam knew that long in the past, when the last Paramount held the post, Nemek fighters took Hefkot's first spouse. Even though she was returned, he was never the same.

Terron spoke. "They will not need to stay long. The fate of our seedlings will be decided before the little moon rises again." He huffed and a low growl rolled from his throat. His words were far calmer than his language.

"I will summon the Nemek with your fourth heart, Paramount," Raychit said to Ardam.

"And of the next meeting, what do you feel will sway the two-legs? For it does not seem that Toumani Shaw stands alone when making decisions," Ardam said.

Kaliff had been quiet all this time, two of her eyes closed in thought. "He said their resources were limited. Why do we not extend a charitable hand and give them what we can to help them on their way? We have food to spare and there are several members of my Family that would serve as willing guides to help them find a new home."

Having the second largest Family, Kaliff had always been a generous soul. In some ways, that generosity might have been what kept her from being on Ardam's left, but Kaliff never seemed to mind her post.

The caucus responded with huffs and whistles, some from surprise, some from dissent.

Ezcar spoke first. "Why should we share our bounty when they threaten our seedlings?"

Raychit ground her disapproval deep and low in her throat.

Then Hefkot said, "They are troublemakers! We should not help them."

Kaliff responded. "They did not arrive with malicious intent. Until today, they did not know we existed. Since when are we not a generous Family?"

Ardam liked the suggestion. It fit nicely with his strategy and being Paramount, he had final say. "I agree with Kaliff. We will donate a portion of our goods to help them relocate."

Once the decision was handed down, the debate was over. The mood however did not return to calm. Ardam usually liked having more agreement within the caucus, but this time he truly felt he knew what was best. He understood Toumani Shaw in a way the others could not. He had to trust his mind and his hearts.

Ardam stood. By raising himself above those in the circle he was removing his words from discussion and making them a mandate. "In three day's time, I will take our children to meet with the two-legs. The caucus will remain here."

For the first time, the branflee chatter was not enough to quell the uprising from the caucus. They were beyond words. Chuffs and chattery whistles and keening notes broke over the secluded circle. Members of the Family stopped and stared at them. A wave of nervous twitters ruffled through the crowd. Ardam growled a low note but the caucus paid no heed. All the Family became restless though they didn't know why. His anger stirred.

Ardam changed his pitch to a warning wail. Some quieted but still the rants continued. He stood taller and filled his torso with air. Anticipation alone dropped more Family members into silence. Then Ardam let out a rippled bellow that rumbled full force through his throat pouch, vibrating from deep in his body.

Even the branflees went silent, their lights dimmed.

He waited and let the silence stretch until it was clear that he held control. Ardam did not yell but spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. "The two-legs understand the importance of children. In three days I will call upon our children to save their unborn siblings. I do not believe I will be putting them at risk."

Raychit interrupted. Indeed, she was the only one that could at that moment. "Are you willing to pledge your life on that?"

It was the Ferrago Challenge. If Ardam didn't accept, his decision could be overturned by the caucus. If he accepted and any of the children were injured, his life would be forfeit. He focused three eyes on Raychit. Was this a play for power or was she testing Ardam's resolve? Either was within her right.

"Yes." Ardam said. He didn't fear Toumani Shaw's response, but now his life depended on how the two-legs responded. He would have to consider his approach carefully.

The Family waited for more. He whistled a calming note, one of the primary tones from the Family's song. "Every one of you is my child. I will protect you."

After a long pause, Raychit sang the first note. It would be wrong for her not to honor her Paramount, regardless of whether she agreed with him. Kaliff added the second note, as was proper, and the sequence descended through the caucus. Then the rest joined in with their pitches that made up the Family song. Ardam had demanded their obedience and he was getting it. When they were all singing he added his note, the one that unified them all, and with a final pitch change, brought the song to an end.

In that silent moment, the stress of the day dissolved with the song and Ardam realized he was exhausted. He would not show it, of course. Stepping past the branflee sticks he strode out of the circle and toward the top of the ridge where he could observe the town. He settled and entrenched his toes deep in the comforting soil. No matter how tired he was he needed to appear strong. He had a promise to keep - and the Family needed to believe that he could do it.

End of Part 1

. . . to be continued in issue 32 . . .

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