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Chapt. 19: Upon the Rocky Ground

By Michael Jesse

When Laura woke, the sun was in her eyes and a familiar face was looking down at her. It was Irenia.

Laura sat up. A dozen or more ruah were around them. One was a crouched over Ronnie. He seemed okay, though he was wincing at the doctor's touch. Others were poking in the sand with their horns, occasionally examining an object and discussing it in low tones.

"What happened here, children?" Irenia was asking her, a worried expression deepening the lines on her worn face.

Ronnie told most of the story because he'd witnessed more than Laura had and as he described the men clubbing Verdu Laura felt a rush of shame.

As Irenia said, "at least you two children are safe," Laura broke down.

"I'm so sorry!" she sobbed, looking at all of the ruah faces around her. "You must hate me and you should because I'm one of them. I'm a savien!"

Irenia sat on the sand close to her and wrapped her front legs around Laura, holding her tight and rocking her. "Of course we don't hate you. You aren't to blame for this."

The hovering males piped a chorus of overlapping assurances. "Not at all . . . brave child . . . you left your fathers to help us . . . not your fault what they've done."

Irenia kissed Laura's wet cheek and stood up. Laura stood up with her and wiped her eyes with her hands, still looking down at the sand.

Irenia looked sternly at Menda. "I trust you have your teams in place now?"

"Yes, Mother Irenia," Menda said with a bow. "I deeply regret that we were not 12 hours quicker, but the patrols we assembled yesterday are now fully in place if the ship returns."

"Laura," Irenia said. "You said you stood and watched the ship disappear. Was it going directly out to sea or moving along the coast?"

"Out . . . out to sea," Laura said, her voice choking again. "I think they have what they came for and are taking them back."

"I suspect so as well."

"What are we going to do?" Laura asked, finally looking up. "They took Jack."

"And Riona and Verdu, along with many others," Irenia replied. "Hush now a moment, child. Doctor, how is young Rahnee?"

"He'll be fine," the doctor replied. "It was deep, but a clean cut that will mend quickly and the bone was not touched."

"Well that's good. We're expecting your parents any day now Rahnee and I'm afraid they're going to think we're not taking very good care of you."

The doctor and another ruah prepared a stretcher to carry Ronnie. It was attached by ropes to the waist of the first ruah while the rear set of ropes were looped around the second ruah's horns.

"I could probably walk a little," Ronnie said halfheartedly.

"That would be unwise, young ruah," the doctor said.

While Menda and most of the others stayed behind to continue guarding the beach, Irenia led a smaller group back to the path that would take them to the school and the village. They crossed the expanse of prairie that Laura had attempted to run across the evening before. When they reached the rocky hillside where the path ascended at a steep incline, the two ruah carrying Ronnie's stretcher had to move carefully, but Laura was impressed by their sure-footedness.

Two other ruah came with them, a male and a female, neither of whom Laura knew. When they reached the crest of the hill and the going was easier, Irenia spoke to the pair briefly.

"Please run ahead to the museum and find Dr. Vellaran," she said to the male. "I believe they're closed today so you may have to find him at home. Ask him to meet me at the Hall of Discovery." The male ruah bowed and took off at a run. When she turned her head to talk to the female ruah, Laura could no longer hear what she was saying, though she edged closer in an attempt to do so. But all she heard was ". . . and ask them to meet us there as soon as possible." And with that, the second ruah took off at a run in a slightly different direction than the first.

"Where are they going?" Laura asked.

"Just to deliver some messages for me. The doctor and his patient can't travel very quickly, nor can you or I for that matter — not compared to those young ruah."

"So . . . we're going to meet someone named Dr. Vellaran at someplace called the Hall of Discovery?" Laura asked. "Is that a building at the university? Why are we meeting him? What can he do?"

"For a being with such small ears, you certainly hear well."

Laura reddened. "I'm just wondering what we're going to do."

"I know child, but be patient and let me think. Right now we need to take young Rahnee someplace where he can rest comfortably and heal — and where I hope he can avoid further adventures until his parents arrive." Here she cast a warning glance at Ronnie.

"I'll try," he said.

They walked on in silence the rest of the way, stopping only to eat and then only briefly. Laura's bare feet had become toughened but her legs ached by the time they neared the outskirts of the university community again late in the afternoon. Several young ruah of Ronnie's age had been looking out for them and now came running up around them, offering to help carry Ronnie's stretcher. Among them was Roe, who took over carrying the front end of the stretcher. The others gathered around Ronnie, walking along with them.

"Did you really get stabbed with a spear fighting the saviens?" one asked excitedly. "Roe said you were captured and escaped and fought them trying to save Verdu and that you got stabbed and nearly bled to death. Roe says you're a hero. The whole school is talking about it!"

Ronnie and Roe made eye contact. "Well," Ronnie said, "I . . . we both did what we could."

The doctor continued to supervise as Roe and another young ruah carried the stretcher to one of the dormitories. Laura started to follow, but Irenia stopped her. "He'll be fine. Our way is over here." She led the way towards a large building Laura had noticed the first time she passed through the campus. It was twice as large as any other building she had seen in the ruah communities and most of one wall was made of glass bricks.

As they approached, Laura saw that two ruah waited for them at the entrance. One was the young male who had run ahead with Irenia's message. The other was an older female with a mane that appeared to benefit from frequent attention.

"Mistress Irenia, greetings," the female said.

"Dr. Hahns, so good to see you again," Irenia replied. "Has Dr. Vellaran not arrived yet?"

"He was visiting relatives in another village, but is on his way now," Dr. Hahns explained, nervously Laura thought. "I understand others are expected to arrive soon as well. May I inquire about the purpose of the gathering? We heard about the abduction, of course, but–"

"We shall discuss the purpose of my visit when Dr. Vellaran arrives," Irenia stated flatly. "In the meantime, if you do not mind, perhaps we could go inside?"

"Oh yes, of course! Forgive me!" Hahns squeaked, quickly opening the door. The sun was getting low on the horizon but still provided plenty of light through the thick windows and Laura looked around curiously at the many carefully placed objects that adorned the smooth, white walls. She was in a museum.

The exhibit closest to the entrance was immediately recognizable even though the written description was in a language she could not read. It showed a solar system with a yellow sun and six planets, which she recognized from their size and color as Mercury through Saturn.

Irenia was busy talking to Dr. Hahns so Laura wandered through the hall looking at the other exhibits and trying to make them out without being able to read the ruah symbols. One had to do with volcanoes and another seemed to be explaining why the sea levels had declined over time.

But it was the next exhibit that rooted Laura to the floor. She did not need to understand the words because the bones spoke for themselves — dozens of reassembled skeletons carefully placed one after the other. It was just like the pictures in her new book about evolution that showed how dolphins and whales had originally been land creatures but evolved into sea-dwelling mammals. But this exhibit seemed to show the changes going in the other direction. It started with dolphin skeletons and gradually progressed to that of a four-legged land animal with a very familiar growth of horns.

Dizzy and forgetting all else around her, Laura examined each skeleton again, this time noticing one feature that had remained the same throughout evolution — the breathing hole at the top of its head. "Of course," she mumbled to herself, glancing back at the chart showing the decline of the oceans. "They had to come back to the land."

Laura jumped when she heard her own name. Irenia and the others were now standing next to her, and Irenia was introducing her to someone who had just arrived. He was an older ruah about the same age and build as Haran. But where the gardener had eight horns, this one had eleven. Laura would not have noticed that distinction before, but now she counted, like everyone else.

"Laura, dear," Irenia repeated. "This is Dr. Vellaran, the chief curator of the museum collection."

"Blessings to you," Laura whistled.

He stepped closer to her and stared openly. "Astonishing," he said, more to himself than to her. And then to Laura he piped, over loudly as if speaking to a deaf person, "Do. You. Understand. What. I. Am. Say-ing?"

Laura might have laughed, but her mind was still at work on what she had just learned. "Yes," she said. "Quite well, thank you."

"Astonishing," Vellaran repeated. "Absolutely astonishing."

"Dr. Vellaran," Irenia interrupted impatiently. "I have come to speak with you on a matter of some urgency."

Vellaran finally broke off his attention from Laura and turned. "Oh yes, of course, Mother Irenia," he crooned obsequiously. "But please tell me this is not concerning The Adventurer. "

"I'm afraid it is, Doctor. You've heard what happened. We must at least determine whether it is an option."

She turned and began walking briskly down the corridor, the tapping of her toenails on the stone floor echoing in the empty chamber, and they all followed. Though she was small, Irenia moved quickly and Vellaran had to hurry to keep at her side.

"It is my considered opinion that this is not a viable course of action," he said hurriedly.

"I respect your expertise, Doctor," Irenia said not slowing her pace, "but I'm afraid at a moment of great emergency such as this, you will have to go beyond stating your opinion, however ‘considered' it may be."

Laura hurried along, trying to keep up but then her feet slowed to an involuntary walk. In the light from the setting sun through the windows Laura saw a large object the size of a small house inside the museum's main chamber. This was the main exhibit, the central focus of the building. But the wooden structure in front of her was not a house.

It was a ship.

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