Do not rely on the future to solve problems.
Look to this day.
What did our nomadic existence teach us?
Only that we are restless by nature.
~ Ancient Oracles
Two thousand years after the remaining Valleur settled on Valaris, a scant three years after the completion of Mantra’s palace, Vannis awakened from deep sleep in the dead of night.
A high-pitched, screaming whine grew ever louder and closer to reach intensity directly overhead, before gradually disappearing into the north.
Pounding barefooted to open windows, Vannis looked up into the night sky to see the vanishing taillights of a human starship; he did not need to see it, the sound was permanently etched into memory and had not changed a whit in two millennia.
He was not alone in looking out. From every window in the Palace, every doorway, faces craned to the heavens. Then they looked to each other, faces pale and anxious, before turning to their Vallorin’s window, to see him standing there, still, as if carved from stone.
Even those furthest away could see the unmistakable darkening of his eyes. Dread set in among the watchers.
Mantra ran into the chamber behind him, yellow eyes wild, gripping a silk wrap with nervous fingers. “Vannis! My Lord! What was that sound? What is happening?”
When he did not answer, she approached, laid a hand on his arm, seeking to turn him to face her. She gasped and snatched her hand away when she realised how rigid he was, how cold.
“Please, my husband,” she begged. “What is the matter?”
He faced her, expressionless. She reeled back at the sight of his black eyes. She heard they could do that, in fury, but never had she seen it. She stumbled backward until she felt the bed bite her legs, sat down hard, hands clawing at the coverlet.
His beautiful voice rang out, projected for all to hear.
“I shall NOT allow this to happen again! This is OUR world! Prepare! Valleur, we are now on WAR watch!”
The listeners closed their eyes, and scuttled away to prepare. They knew what to do.
“Vannis, what is it?” Mantra asked.
Toning his voice to her ears alone, Vannis replied, “My queen. That was a human starship. They come to invade our world as they have done often elsewhere. With them, they bring the darak races, although they mean not to. Darklings prey on their fears, follow the easy targets. The humans will come in their numbers and continue coming until they leave nothing for the Valleur. Again. We shall lose all unless we stop them now. Ah, child, you are too young to know how destructive and selfish they can be, even unwittingly. Go now to your chambers, we shall talk later. I have matters I must attend to without delay.”
His reasonable tone allayed her fears, although his words caused her to shiver. She rose, moved towards him, needing to impart comfort, diffuse anger, but he shook his head.
“Nay, lady, go. There is no softness in me tonight. Go now.”
He watched her leave through the side door, and strode across to fling the passage door wide, calling on his councillors to gather in the Throne-room.
Two days later the scouts returned, looking solemn.
Ushered to the Throne without delay, they reported they found the ship, that it crashed, and there was one survivor.
“We brought him back, Lord Vallorin, assuming you would want to question him.” Rather than kill him, was the unspoken thought.
Vannis nodded and the man was brought before him.
His skin was pale from long space travel, his clothes torn remnants of a blue coverall. His hair was fair, his eyes a weary blue and he was scratched and bruised, some of it due to rough handling.
His face was dirty with dried blood, streaks of oil and mud.
Swaying, he stood before the exotic Vannis, his lips cracked.
“Who are you?” Vannis barked in the common tongue.
The man was too exhausted to feel fear or wonder. “Navigator Paul Sheffield, sir.”
“Where do you come from? This world is far removed from standard flight plans.”
Blinking then in surprise, Sheffield answered, “We came from Beacon originally. Ours was a pathfinder, sent out to disc…”
Vannis interrupted, “Yes, we know what you are to discover. Did you send these co-ordinates back to your homeworld? Or … wait. Your sister-ship?”
Pathfinders always travelled in pairs.
Realising the danger, Sheffield said no more.
“Answer!” shouted the chief councillor, Mantra’s grandfather.
“There was no time,” Sheffield said.
Vannis rose and descended from the dais to the floor, and strode to the man. “Liar!” he spat. “We are now on war footing! If you value the lives of your compatriots, I suggest you tell the truth or, so help me, we shall blow them out of the sky!”
Vannis was not someone to be fooled with and Sheffield saw the greater danger lay in lying. “Yes, they know we crashed, and where.”
“Perhaps four days.”
“Take him away. Feed him, clothe him, we may need him,” Vannis commanded and turned away with a curt nod at one of the guards. “Do not harm him further,” he added as an afterthought.
Two guards gripped the man, who struggled. “Wait, wait,” he called out.
Vannis stayed the grasping hands.
Sheffield shook himself free.
“Yes?” Vannis barked.
“Who are you and what do you call this world?”
“We are the Valleur, and you have trespassed on Valaris, human.”
“How do you know my language?”
“How?” Vannis snorted.
Sheffield immediately sensed general smirking in the strange gem-studded chamber. A dangerous man, this. He forced his eyes to remain on the leader.
Vannis answered, “I have lived a long time and I have fought your kind. You have forgotten us, out there, and that was the plan. I speak your despised language, human, because I have killed so many of you.”
The conversational tone made his words chilling, and the hairs in the back of Sheffield’s neck rose.
“Take him away,” Vannis said, waving with distaste.
They brought the human to the Vallorin after the evening meal, upon his request.
Vannis sent Mantra to her chambers and awaited Sheffield in the comfort of his. Four days! What could he do to save his world in four days?
His courtiers fed and clothed the man as ordered, even allowing him to bathe. When they brought him he was dressed in a long, flowing robe, red, which made the man’s pallor more pronounced. Vannis was sure it was deliberate and hid an amused smile.
Sheffield’s hair was short and neatly combed away from his face. An honest face. Average. The kind that would never exude danger. Danger lay in the intent of his mission.
Vannis waved him to a floor cushion on the other side of the low table and nodded at the man’s gaolers to leave them. They took up position in the passage, closing the door.
“Do not entertain thoughts of escape. A friendly warning. You are tagged and can be found with a mere thought.” Vannis waited until Sheffield was comfortable, and asked, “Paul Sheffield, right? What does that mean?” He indicated the decanter on the table between them. An empty glass stood before the human.
“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” Sheffield replied. He ignored the decanter, although the amber liquid was appealing. He wondered what it was.
“I am not called ‘sir’, human. You call me Lord Vallorin, nothing else. I want to know what your name means.” Vannis watched the man through narrowed eyes. Tonight his eyes were yellow, through sheer will.
“It’s just a name.”
Vannis loosed a wolfish grin that sent a shiver down Sheffield’s spine. “Ah, you are wrong. There is no such entity as ‘just a name’. When you are born, a name is given you, gifted you, to take you into life’s journeys. It is your identity. It must have meaning or you yourself are worthless. A mother who calls her son ‘boy’ is telling him he means nothing to her. I am ‘exotic creation’ and it fits like the glove that holds my favourite eagle. My wife is ‘shining lights’ and a truer truth there never has been.”
Sheffield turned his eyes into the yellow ones. “What happens if your name does not fit you?”
“It rarely happens in our culture. We scry the future of a newborn before a name is given. If it does happen, usually the man or woman seeks permission for lawful change, and the old one is struck off the records, right back to birth. Your people do not attach significance to the naming process?”
Shaking his head, Sheffield said, “Not in the sense you do. Our names, our first names more often, have a meaning. Anthropologically. I have no idea where ‘Paul’ comes from, although famous people have carried it. Lord Vallorin, surely I’m not here to discuss my name?”
“We shall speak of whatever I will, human,” Vannis responded, his lips tightening.
“I’m not called ‘human’, Lord Vallorin; I am Paul Sheffield, or Navigator, plain Paul, or just Sheffield. Do not demean my race by using the term as you would to call your mongrel.”
Vannis’ eyes darkened imperceptibly and lightened again. He burst out laughing. “Well put! You are not a coward - how refreshing! I do apologise, and I believe I like ‘Navigator’ best. It has meaning. Come, drink up, Navigator! It is sweet wine distilled from the blossoms of our peach orchards and the solẻ hedges surrounding our rose gardens.” Vannis lifted the decanter to refill his own glass, and placed it within reach of Sheffield. “Difficult to make, and therefore a rare pleasure to enjoy.”
The Navigator poured a glass and was pleasantly surprised by the mild, sweet taste. It was low in alcohol, meant for taste, not drunkenness.
Vannis raised his glass. “Your health, Navigator. May your assistance in the coming days ensure your continued longevity.”
Sheffield set his glass on the table. “What do you mean?”
“I think you have the gist of it. I do not want intruders on my world, I do not want them to land, and I want you to tell me how to prevent them entering Valaris airspace. I do not want them to return, ever. If you do this, you will live, and be free to move around my planet as you desire, with no restrictions. On this you have my word. If you do not, I shall blow your friends out of the sky without a second thought, without conscience or regret, and when you have seen it happen, you will tell me how to prevent future landings. You will be allowed to live, but within the confines of my Palace only, under constant guard. That is no way to live, I believe. That is what I mean.”
They stared at each other for long moments. “You have weapons that can do that? Blow them out of the sky?”
“I like that you are a man who does not enter blindly into an agreement, and thus I shall answer truthfully. No, the Valleur have no weapons such as you imagine. We do it differently. I shall show you, for actions sometimes speak louder than words, not so? Come with me; I cannot afford to terrify the entire Palace.”
Rising in one fluid movement, Vannis strode to the door, his long white robe swaying open. Under it he wore a simple loincloth, his feet bare. His long golden hair quivered like a legendary creature of beauty when he wrenched the door wide.
He was not prepared to wait that single second for a servant to open the way for him.
Sheffield followed, a knot of fear tightening his gut. However civilized these Valleur appeared, and they were if their buildings were anything to go by, and their leader’s sharp intelligence, they were dangerous, barbaric in their forthrightness, and not to be trusted.
Vannis led Sheffield and a single guard down the stairs, through the circular Throne-room, and out into the Palace gardens.
Small knots of Valleur were gathered in the Throne-room, but one look from their Vallorin and they knew to curb their curiosity. The older among them remembered the vengeful Vannis of before Valaris.
The night air was still, and perfumed by many flowers and ripe fruit from nearby orchards. The moon approached full and its light shone blue onto the slumbering land.
Sheffield paused to gaze around him in awe. What a beautiful world. He glanced over his shoulder at the massive Palace, a place of light, the blue shine glinting off countless windows. He wondered how old it was and in that moment also he understood.
I would fight for this, he thought. We are not so different.
The guard prodded him forward. Vannis walked on thoughtfully. He sensed the Navigator’s thought - he was not a mind reader, merely a student of people - and the thought gave him pause. He had thought it himself. Not about the fighting, that was a given, but as to being not so different.
Two factors set Valleur and human apart, he mused. The length of our years, and sorcery. In most other matters we are brothers. We should be able to live together … why can we not?
Not far off, there was a hill, atop which stood a small building, clearly visible in the moonlight, and Vannis pointed to it. “Yonder is an old sentry-post that has fallen into disrepair the last thousand years or so. I have been meaning to take it down.”
And I grew lax, let this come to us again. We cannot live together for the Valleur think for the future while the humans live only in the present. Like rats, they should be exterminated.
Sharing a look between Vannis and the hut, Sheffield nodded.
“I am unarmed, Navigator.” To emphasize his point, Vannis held his robe wide.
Sheffield fixated on the intricate dragon tattoo. He shivered, for he could swear the creature looked at him.
“Eyes up, Navigator. We do not commonly carry weapons, although I do have a sword I treasure. I have not wielded it for some time, though,” Vannis said. “Now watch the building.”
As Sheffield shifted his gaze that way, the hut exploded in a fierce white glare, quickly extinguished. Stones rained down the hill on all sides. Gasping, he faced Vannis. He had not taken his eyes from the Navigator.
“How did you do that?”
“Like this.” Vannis stood unmoving, but Sheffield grabbed at his heart as it erupted in spasms of agony.
As suddenly, the pain left him. He stood still, breathing heavily, his eyes wide.
“With thought, Navigator, The Valleur are sorcerers, all of us, even the young. I can travel to your world, Beacon, and I can do it right now, using purely my will, and I shall arrive there in an instant, unscathed. That is no idle boast; it is how we travel. We have been doing so for … ah, but you cannot possibly comprehend that kind of time. Look at me, Navigator. We shall blow them away the moment we sense them. Lucky for you, we grew careless in our vigilance, but never again. If you deflect them, if you can do so, I suggest you do. If they spread the word there is nothing here, we gain more than by simply killing them. It is the better option, for both of us, but do not for a moment think I aim to let them go if they find this world and believe it good for human settlement. Your choice. Now, enough. It is cold out. We shall talk tomorrow.”
Vannis made his way indoors, leaving the human to stare after him, clutching his heart, now to still the frantic beating.
The sister pathfinder made its way to Valaris six days later.
Sheffield was taken to the crash site, where, after being allowed to bury his companions, seven in all, he monitored the one still-functioning screen.
The Valleur stood at a respectful distance after assisting in the digging of graves, and he was thankful. Not such a barbaric people, he concluded. In fact, a highly advanced race, as he saw when nimble fingers flew over keyboards in the mangled ship. They extracted the information they could find, thereafter destroying all systems but for the one he needed.
We are the barbarians, he mused. We rely on computers, gadgets, and metal cages in the sky; they have long surpassed us. They are so far ahead we may never catch up.
When Sheffield noticed the pathfinder, a blip on his screen moving steadily closer, he radioed until they answered. Almost he wanted to shout he was a prisoner, please help me, but the unconcern of the Valleur present made that impossible.
They did not consider he would shout for help and they were right. That would make him a monster, a murderer, and he could not live with that. He saw sympathy in their eyes, and that, more than the threat to the pathfinder, was the real factor that decided him.
No, never barbarians, not these people.
His plan was simple, and if it worked and the pathfinder left, the Valleur would keep their promise. It would be allowed to leave, and that was worth more than possible rescue.
He told them of the crash, that he was the only survivor, and it was nothing but truth, his voice breaking as he did so. He further told them the atmosphere contained dangerous levels of radioactivity, the insidious kind that would not show up on probe monitors, that he was too close to death to warrant a rescue attempt.
Please hear me, he thought, for I do not want your deaths on my conscience.
He told them to call off future missions to this world; it would be millennia before the air was stable. He sent them doctored data to confirm his claims. He begged them to stay clear, his voice hoarse with effort, telling them he did not want their imminent deaths to be his final thought. That much, at least, was true, and surely they heard the sincerity in his voice? Before he cut the transmission, he told them to tell his wife and daughter that he loved them.
Shaking with silent, unashamed sobs, he said no more. He hoped, he prayed they would turn around.
The Valleur retreated well away after that, one laying a silent hand of sympathy on his shoulder before moving to give him privacy.
There was no more to be said; the Navigator had done what he could.
His world narrowed to that tiny blip on his screen, his final contact with his kind. He stared at it, unmoving, the tears drying in streaks on his face, and prayed.
They stayed for six long and agonizing hours, trying repeatedly to raise him, he heard them, heard someone cry in the background, had to be Sally, his sister-in-law, and cried with her, hands clenched in his lap.
Eventually he heard the tearful farewells through tinny speakers, a final goodbye to someone they thought already dead and, blessedly, the blip retreated to vanish ever faster off the screen.
He crashed his fist into it, stood up screaming his grief, and ran, anywhere, to come to terms with the finality of his situation, to cope with the raw pain. He would never see his family again. He was alone on this beautiful, barbed world with a bunch of tyrants.
The Valleur let him go. They knew what it was like to lose everything. They set about systematically removing all evidence of the crash.
The pathfinder did not return.
Sheffield lived out his years in the freedom he was promised.
He roamed the land, doing so with abandon. He grew to love the land and the variety of creatures, but, although he had occasion to smile, he never laughed.
After, Mantra remarked she wished she could have heard him laugh, just once, for she was sure it would have been a glorious sound.
It seemed he had a death wish, for he put himself in extreme situations, mountain climbing, cliff scaling, braving rapids in a paper-thin canoe he fashioned himself; so brave, so full of life, to laugh would have made it all right. It was never all right.
He died eventually in an avalanche in the far north during winter, alone, as he would have preferred. They found his body and stood over it, saddened by the peace on his face, present, at last, in death. He was only forty, a young man old when he lost hope.
Vannis and Mantra, all the Valleur, grew to love him, but could only stand by and watch as he put himself in harm’s way. It was his choice, and they understood.
During Sheffield’s time, Vannis fashioned the Ruby of Entrances. He made it for the human to visit the sacred sites easily, for he had no need to withhold anything from the Navigator.
After a time he wanted to share his thoughts, his world and his people with the man, finding in him a lonely soul and a brother much like himself. His delight at Sheffield’s wonder caused his eyes to flash deep amber, and the man’s smile was a gift direct to Vannis’ soul.
He took the Navigator with him whenever the man was near, showed him Valaris’ many wonders, and when court business drew him in, Sheffield used the Ruby to transfer to places, from where he would leave on his death-defying adventures.
Vannis’ instinctive hatred of the humans disappeared; he learned to understand their psyche. They too attempted to carve out their niche in the universe, as the Valleur had to. He understood them finally. Need drove them to annex what would sustain them.
As the Sagorin did with Glorium, as the darklings did with their foul-air planets. As the Valleur did recently with Valaris. It was a pity Valleur and human needed exactly, exactly, the same spaces.
When Sheffield died, alone, Vannis’ eyes were blue for a long time.
He, in the end, called the Navigator friend.