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Chapt. 16: Laura, Alone
By Michael Jesse
Verdu set the pace at an easy trot, but Riona edged ahead of him and made them go faster. At first they rode back down the road that led to Haran's gardens, the same route they'd taken into the village the morning before.
Before they reached the gardens, Riona took a lesser traveled fork in the road. It was narrower than the main road and they traveled single file with Riona and Laura in the lead. Laura looked back to see her brother still smiling, though Verdu now appeared to be deep in thought.
"So did you say these were your students?" Laura asked.
"Yes. Or at least some of them are. We're stopping at the school first so I can find out which students are involved in this little adventure. It's on the way."
"What subjects do you teach?"
Riona replied with several words Laura hadn't heard before. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't understand what you said."
Riona repeated the words but defined one as "the study of rocks, river patterns and erosion," another as "the study of trees and other plant life" and the third as " the study of the stars and the movement of the planets." This added "geology," "botany" and "astronomy" to Laura's still-growing ruah vocabulary. "I don't usually teach astronomy but have been this term because Professor Dorlen has the year off."
Laura tried to imagine Riona as a teacher in front of a classroom with a blackboard behind her. She realized that a ruah school was probably nothing like that, but she could not quite picture it.
"Here we are," Riona said as they rounded a corner on the trail and emerged from the woods to a clearing. Jack and Laura saw several buildings similar to the houses in structure but these were larger and older looking. The walls and porch railings were made of weathered stone long covered with ivy, and mature oak trees grew from some corners of the buildings.
Several clusters of ruah youths were gathered on the building porches while others were clumped together in the grass or up in the woods.
Riona trotted up to one building where about a dozen young ruah were gathered on the stone steps under an elegant, stone-carved arch. An older male was facing them and the students seemed to be repeating aloud lines of a poetic song played for them by the instructor.
"Hi Professor Riona," several of the students called, and then one voice added, "look at that with her. It's one of the savien kids." Another voice said, "Look there comes Caller Verdu with the other one!" In a swarm they all leaped off the porch railings, their lesson forgotten, and gathered around as Riona and Verdu drew near.
And Laura heard a familiar voice. "Laura! Jack!" It was Ronnie, pushing his way through his fellow students to the front.
Jack and Laura quickly dropped to the ground and ran up to Ronnie, grabbing his neck and touching his horns.
"Wow, he really does know them," one of the other students remarked. "We believed you all the time, Rahn. Aren't you going to introduce us?"
"Sure you did," Ronnie said back over his shoulder, and then to Jack and Laura, "so, are you two going to come to school here? I'm just staying here until my parents come for me."
"Actually," Riona said, "we're only stopping by on our way to pick up some truant classmates of yours." She looked around the familiar faces, taking note of who was missing. "Well, I see that Thaland and Roe are unaccounted for. That's no surprise. Professor Ameedia, who else is absent?"
The old professor came forward and recited five more names impatiently. "However, as attendance is not mandatory, I did not consider it notable and I am trying to keep to my schedule. We have only two weeks to do justice to Middle Period romantic verse and that is quite challenging enough without all of these disruptions."
Verdu emitted an annoyed note, but allowed Riona to deal with her colleague. "As you know, Professor," Riona said, "there is a Beach Watch in progress because of the foreign ship, and so–"
"Yes, yes, I suppose they do that sort of thing in such circumstances," Ammedia muttered. "But the Middle Period in two weeks, now I ask you, how am I to cover all of that material with all of this fuss going on?"
"So I take it you have not, uh, had the opportunity yet to notify their parents?"
"I'm surprised that you of all people would ask such a question, Professor Riona. Students at this age are entirely responsible for their own education or lack thereof."
"This is pointless," Verdu said. "Let's just take care of it." He turned and walked away.
"I'll go with you," Ronnie called, running after him. "I tried to tell them what happened to me but Roe said I probably just got lost and made it all up. And the other kids just go along with whatever Roe and Thaland say no matter how stupid it is. So can I go with you?"
"Wouldn't you rather memorize Middle Period sonnets?" Verdu asked. Jack guessed it had not been Verdu's favorite topic when he was in school. Riona exchanged some final words with her colleague and trotted up to join them.
"Young Rahnee wants to go with us," Verdu told her.
"You really should stay here, Rahnee," Riona said. "Your parents may be arriving as early as tomorrow afternoon."
"But I can help. I know exactly where they are."
"And he's responsible for his own education," Verdu put in. "Or lack thereof."
"Very well, Rahnee," Riona said. "You may accompany us and show us the quickest way to your friends. But we are not on holiday. I want you to study this rock formation up ahead on the right as we pass it. You should remember from your lessons that in ancient times certain mountains still produced molten rock. You will show me where you see evidence of this."
Ronnie sighed. "Yes ma'am."
For the next two hours they rode steadily as the afternoon waned. Riona kept Ronnie busy with geology and botany questions much of that time, but for the last part of the trip they rode in silence.
"We're almost to the shore," Verdu said. "It's just beyond this hill." He took the lead as they climbed a steep grassy hill from which protruded many boulders and rocky ledges. But there was an established trail where others had beaten the easiest path.
At the top of the hill they could see the ocean and taste the salty breeze, but as they paused at the summit they heard ruah voices crying out in distress down below.
"Oh no!" Ronnie cried. "Look down there." Through a scrabble of white pines they saw a familiar shape on the water — the ship. The men had landed and were fighting with a dozen young ruah on the beach.
With a startling blast of his horns, Verdu began running down the hillside toward the beach with Ronnie close at his heels. Jack was clinging to Verdu's horns just trying not to fall off.
When they reached the bottom of the hill they were still some distance from the beach, which was farther away than it had appeared from the top. A long stretch of open prairie separated them and Verdu ran across it at top speed. But Ronnie, though smaller, was faster and outpaced the larger ruah.
"Wait!" Verdu called, but Ronnie in his excitement ran ahead and charged into the fight. Jack could see at least two dozen men armed with spears and nets. Already several of the young ruah were on the ground, tangled in nets.
Heedlessly, Ronnie ran into a knot of men, swinging his horns back and forth, ready to knock them all over. But they had seen him coming and held up a large rope net that he ran into before he could stop himself.
Verdu came to a halt and seemed to have just remembered he was carrying Jack. "Get off!" he commanded and shook Jack onto the grass. "You are to remain here and when Riona arrives, tell her to stay back. I do not want her involved in this, do you understand?"
Jack nodded and Verdu ran on again, but he did not simply charge the men as Ronnie had done. Blasting an intimidating challenge, he circled the men and chose his targets, dropping them lifelessly to the ground in a flurry of efficient blows. Another group of men came at him with a net, but he dodged around behind them, catching them before they could react.
Jack stood in the tall grass watching in awe as Verdu picked the men apart. like a martial arts master armed with tree branches. But there were so many opponents and they swarmed and regrouped, surrounding him. At a command they threw their spears, striking him. Jack gasped in fear as Verdu thrashed out with three spears sticking out of his body. Several men fell dead but now a net was partly thrown over him, his horns caught in it.
Just then something swept past Jack from behind. It was Riona, dashing into the melee, but Laura was no longer on her back. Jack searched the empty prairie but saw no sign of his sister. When he turned around again he saw Riona snapping at the men with her teeth. Verdu nearly tore his way free from the net, but the men were swinging clubs at him and one of them struck him from behind where his horns could not protect the back of his neck. He stumbled forward onto his knees as another net fell over Riona.
"No!" Jack screamed, finally finding his feet as he ran forward. He saw MacWilde and ran to him screaming, "make them stop, make them stop!"
MacWilde was overjoyed to see Jack and swept him into his arms as the boy hurled himself at his chest.
"Jack, you're alive! How did you get here? I thought you'd drowned!" There were tears of happiness in MacWilde's eyes, but Jack pounded his small fists against MacWilde's chest.
"Make them stop, Captain. Please."
MacWilde seemed not to comprehend what Jack was upset about, and Jack broke his grip and ran to the men who were beating Verdu. He yelled for them to stop but they did not even notice him and as one of the men swung his club backwards to strike another blow, it hit Jack in the forehead and he fell on his back. MacWilde had been right at Jack's heels and reached to catch him, but Verdu suddenly strained against the ropes, tearing partly free. One of his larger horns caught MacWilde full on the chest, knocking him off his feet and to the ground.
A dozen other men fell on Verdu in response, beating him down with their clubs and stabbing with their spears. Jack tried to get up, but he could not move and everything became dark.
As the men carried their captain and the little boy back to the ship and began hauling the captured animals on board no one heard a faint voice calling Jack's name from the prairie grass.
Laura had run all the way from the foot of the hillside where Riona had made her get off, and now she had no wind to yell, though she tried. Her side hurt but she kept running. She stumbled on the uneven ground and fell, but got up again and kept running. By the time she got to the beach, the landing boats had returned to the ship with their captives and the ship had filled its sails and was moving out to sea.
"Jack!" she called with what voice she had left, but it was not enough. She stood waist deep in the water calling her brother's name as the ship grew smaller and the remaining sliver of red sun disappeared on the horizon.
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