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The Chronicles of Ratha: A Lion Among The Lambs by Erica Lawson

 

Prologue

 

 

It’s been nearly three years since I last had a chance to contemplate my life. Three years since someone’s thirst for vengeance had thrown me in the path of the Noorthi. Three years since my life changed completely.

And what’s happened in those three years?

The most important thing was probably the birth of my child a little more than two years ago. No, I didn’t have a child but the little girl is my baby. Confused? Imagine how I felt when I found out that I’d become a father. And I hadn’t even touched the woman. I’m still trying to figure that one out. So far I’ve just put it down to one of those mysterious things the Noorthi are so good at. After all, they’re holy women and a mystery to the rest of us.

Little Rice has been both a joy, and a real pain in the ass, as toddlers tend to be. They are so adoringly cute as they cause mayhem in their wake. But I knew her namesake so knew what this little tornado would be capable of. Then again, she was my kid. Enough said.

And Beri? I’ve stayed with her despite our celibate relationship. Now, I didn’t say it was easy. Far from it, but I don’t know who to blame. I’d like to think it’s the Noorthi ochre flowing through my veins that’s responsible for my predicament, but it could be Beri’s enigmatic smile that keeps me coming back, or maybe I just like the idea of having a kid. Beri has always said that I could go and… what was the old saying? Ah, yes, go and sow my wild oats. But how could I do that to her? For the past few months I’ve been living nine-tenths the way to insanity.

However, I’ve made some progress with Beri. It’s taken nearly three years but she’ll kiss me now, at least not without throwing up. I’m kidding. She seems to enjoy it because there have been times where she’ll kiss me, and not the other way around.  In the past few months she’s even held my hand in public. I’ve seen Fen chuckle in my peripheral vision. She certainly seems to know more about this relationship than I do. Maybe I should be asking Fen when I can make my next move on Beri instead of trying to read her body language.

I’ve sobered up permanently, courtesy of the ochre, and I don’t particularly like it, but no matter what I do the taste never changes. Everything is just awful to drink. Once or twice I even forced myself to get drunk in defiance but in the end it just wasn’t worth it. I’m sure my dad, if he were alive, would be happy I’ve settled down. I hate it. Well, not hate exactly. There are parts of it that are great, but I’m still fighting it.

I still work off-world from Heaven. After all, a girl’s got to bring in the income for the family, right? The boys are still here on Heaven and do the same thing. Work off-world then bring home the credits to the family who are now living with them. I suppose I do it more to keep in touch with the outside world. To realize the universe is still out there and I’m still part of it.

Not long after Vel’s death, everyone made a pact, and so far it’s worked very well. No one knows that Heaven exists. We jealousy guard the untouched virginity of the moon, keeping it safe for our families and the Noorthi. No drinking, fighting or carousing is allowed on Heaven. After all, that’s what Arcus on Telgan is for. One or two of the locals know of us, but they’re sworn to secrecy. It’s a matter of necessity to have someone know of our existence in case something catastrophic happened and we needed to be contacted.

Construction is finally finished on the landing bay and a tunnel had been added to connect it to the healer’s cave on the other side. We can now move from one side of the plateau to the other without having to go over the top.

Of course, Grit and her cronies quickly ordered that a new Great House had to be built for the Noorthi, which became a bone of contention between the settlers and the Noorthi. One had one priority while the others had another. I pointed out to all concerned that if a compromise wasn’t reached, nothing would be built. They soon settled their differences.

And what about Malt, I hear you ask? Well, she’s changed. She’s blossomed quite a bit, not only in her self-confidence, but also in her looks. That gawky, fourteen-year-old is now gone, and even with four arms she’s turned out to be quite a looker, if I say so myself. She hasn’t found anyone yet, but she has plenty of friends to make up for lack of companionship. She used to come with me when I worked, but lately her responsibilities have lain on Heaven, especially after the death of Floric.

I’m sitting in my usual spot on the plateau and looking out over the village that’s sprung up. The huts sit under the canopy of trees and are hidden from prying eyes overhead. In the far corner is a small patch of open ground. Next to Floric lay half a dozen more graves belonging to Noorthi women who have died of old age.

Damn, I miss the old man. When I first met him he was a real pain in the ass, but as time wore on he became a great asset to us. He taught Malt many things, for which I am eternally grateful. A year in from his employment, he even mellowed, his grumpy attitude waning as he grew to love the new life on Heaven. Although Malt never talked of it I knew she was hurt badly when he fell sick. Even Grit’s extensive knowledge of medicine did little to improve him, until finally his body just gave up. Malt stepped into Floric’s large shoes, not only as inventor but also as teacher to the children of our little village.

And Sasha? She’s still working a lot but she’s made a point of coming home more often and spending some quality time with Rales. It’s been good for them both. Even though he’s been busy with all the construction work, I know he still misses his little girl. I think Sash has finally realized that.

We made a salvage run to Juno right after Vel and Grimm’s demise to see what we could find of the Noorthi Great House. It was necessary to use Floric’s cloaking device to get inside and rummage around because the Consortium forces had taken up residence after they defeated Grimm’s soldiers. I can still hear Grit’s disgusted snorts as she observed the rampant disregard for religious artifacts. We could only soothe her indignation by recovering something of use to the Noorthi sisterhood.

What I didn’t know was that three of Rales’ boys, Dorin, Wakes and Hagan, had hacked into Grimm’s computer and emptied his bank account, transferring it across half a universe into an account that had just been concocted a minute before. They had also discovered a secret alcove and promptly emptied that too. The only thing that saved them from my wrath was that they offered it to our community. It seemed that it was common knowledge that our funds were getting low, and they pleaded that they were doing it for us all. Besides, they pointed out logically, if we didn’t take it, the Consortium would. We took it. 

So that’s it. Three years on and life goes on like the first day we arrived. A little more comfortable maybe, but we work, we eat and we sleep. Heaven has sure lived up to its name.

 

 

Chapter One

 

In The Beginning

 

It was nearing the third anniversary of our arrival. The rising sun was shining brightly and the air was fresh. I observed my little piece of Heaven from the old landing site while I savored my early morning coffee synth. Life went on, as always. Our little village had continued to thrive, and the Noorthi were, well, the Noorthi. Despite their close proximity they still remained mysterious.

I studied the scar on my wrist. How could one little flower change my whole life? Since the tattoo the Noorthi had given me, my life had been turned upside down. I was once a carefree, booze-drinking, hard-fighting space pilot for hire. Now I’m an administrator. Not literally, of course. I wouldn’t be caught dead in such an organized position. But the Noorthi had backed me into a corner and if we wanted Heaven to work, then someone had to make the decisions.

My finger ran across the raised skin, tracing the delicate lines of the Noorthi symbol. It had been kind of exciting at first to carry such an exclusive tattoo. Lately, I’ve taken to wearing a wristband over it because the incessant questions from people I’d met annoyed me.

“Raa!” The tiny squeal put my teeth on edge. Little Rice scampered up the hill toward me, her mother trudging along behind her. The tiny bundle of limitless energy threw herself into my arms and I barely got rid of the cup I was holding before her squirming body hit me.

“Raa, high! High!”

Rice wouldn’t be content until I threw her up into the air. It used to be easier a few months ago but Rice had been adding weight, and inches, to her little frame. “What have you been feeding her?” I asked Beri.

“Same as always.” Beri finally sat down next to me, her face firmly fixed on her daughter as I threw the toddler into the air. “One of these days you’re going to drop her.”

“Nah! Unless she’s seventeen, of course, then I might have a bit of trouble.”

Beri chuckled. “You? Admitting you can’t do something?”

“Shocking, isn’t it? Maybe at seventeen she’ll be throwing me around.”

“Considering who she’s a part of, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Surprise couldn’t begin to explain how I felt when Beri told me she was pregnant and I was responsible. Me. That’s right. I’m her father… err, mother… err, co-conspirator. Whatever. You get the picture.

“Raaa!” Rice was wriggling around and complaining because I’d stopped tossing her in the air. She swung her legs and kicked me in the arm, and I nearly dropped her.

“Hey, squirt. Stop that! Do you want me to drop you?”

“Yessss,” Rice said with a cheeky voice.

“Come here.” I wrapped my hands around her tiny waist and put her on the ground. I tickled her and she squealed with delight. The more I tickled her the higher the squeals got, until they reached the pitch that sent both of us covering our ears.

“No screaming,” Beri said in her ‘stern’ voice and Rice stopped, blinking once or twice as she looked at her mother. I wasn’t sure whether Rice was going to cry or laugh. It was that sort of expression.

I looked down into Rice’s blue eyes. “And what have you been doing? Running your mother ragged?”

She stared up at me and answered as only she could. “Yes.”

“Figures.” I turned my attention to Beri. “Has she been behaving?”

“What do you think?”

I heard the weariness in B’s voice. “Do you want me to take her for a while so you can get some rest?” When Beri didn’t answer I looked over my shoulder at her. “What’s wrong?”

She bit her lip and I just knew it was about me. “You’re here to give me some bad news.”

“It’s time.”

“For what?” I gazed at Beri. “Spit it out, woman.”

“Rice must begin her tutoring.” Beri tried to look at me but couldn’t. She found the grass underneath her very interesting.

“Tutoring?”

“Noorthi tutoring.” Beri said nothing more, as if those two words said everything.

“Okay. So what does that involve?” I asked warily. My stomach was churning because of Beri’s expression. It was something that she didn’t want to tell me.

“You won’t be able to see your daughter for quite a while.” Beri’s eyes finally met mine with some sadness.

“And how long is a while?” I felt myself getting agitated.

“Adulthood.”

“Are… you… trying… to… tell… me….,” I enunciated each word clearly and succinctly. “That she is going into the Noorthi stronghold for the next…” I mentally counted. “Fifteen years?” I hadn’t realized that I was shouting until Beri winced.

“Something like that.”

“I hate that phrase. You use it to cover the hideous truth. Why can’t you just say what you mean?”

“Raaa!” Rice cried, her hands covering her ears. “No!”

“It is our way, Jordana, you know that. She must be instructed in the ways of the Noorthi.”

“I thought you weren’t Noorthi, but the Children of the Noorthi,” I emphasized. I was scrambling for any kind of argument I could find because B was telling me that little Rice was going away for a very long time.

“We are in some things, but not in others. This must be done, J. She must know her heritage.”

“At the expense of mine,” I said flatly.

“She is my child–”

Our child–”

“–and she will be Ashaltea one day. She must be prepared for that. Would you deny Rice her destiny?”

“And my influence on her will ruin all that?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“No, but it’s what you thought.” I stood and paced restlessly. Suddenly Heaven didn’t quite live up to its name. “What about my position in the Noorthi? Doesn’t that count for something?”

“Maybe I should have sent Fen.”

“Maybe you should have!” I snapped back.

Beri stood and reached for Rice. “Come on, Rice.”

The child looked from Beri to me, then back at her mother, meekly taking the offered hand and allowing herself to be led down the path back to the Noorthi village. At the bottom of the hill, I saw Beri pick up Rice and disappear under the canopy of vegetation.

Little Rice’s voice started to wail. “Raa! Raa!” It broke my heart to hear the tiny squeals of anguish and it took everything I had to stay put. I slumped to the ground defeated. Who would have thought that one tiny child could break me?

I was tempted to jump into Bessie and fly to the nearby planet of Telgan to get drunk and find a fight. I so wanted to hit something right now.

“Am I interrupting something?”

I glanced at the woman stepping onto the plateau.

“What do you want? Come to give me more bad news?”

“Well, hello to you too.” Fen stood there, calmly watching me.

“Beri ask you to come and smooth things over?” I asked harshly. Fen was the voice of reason and the buffer between Beri and myself.

“Beri doesn’t know that I’m here. I could see that she was upset.”

“No kidding? Imagine how I feel.” I struck out with my foot, collecting a clump of grass with the tip of my boot.

“It has to be done.”

“No, it doesn’t! Why is it I’m always the one who has to sacrifice everything, huh? She’s asking me to give up my child. I can’t do that.”

“She’s Beri’s child. Our future Ashaltea,” Fen explained patiently, “Rice’s future had already been set before she was even born.”

“I don’t object to her being Ashaltea, Fen. It’s the not seeing her for fifteen years that’s the obstacle. According to you, I’m a Noorthi. Doesn’t that buy me visitation rights at least?”

“You will be a distraction to her.” Fen took the last few steps toward me, her hand resting on my arm. “Let’s sit down.” She motioned to the piece of ground that overlooked the valley.

I resisted at first but finally took my seat next to her. She wanted to discuss this calmly and I wanted anything but. I was angry. I was frustrated. I was disappointed. The Noorthi wanted everything from me but would offer nothing in return.

“And how am I a distraction?” I think I already knew the answer to this one, but any other question eluded me.

“You see how Rice is when she sees you. She becomes wildly out of control. You give her excitement and play–”

“She’s a tiny kid, Fen. She deserves fun and games.” I leaned back on my hands, trying to relax.

“But she’s a Noorthi, J, and one day she will lead us. There is a lot of responsibility with this position.”

“And a lot of power,” I added.

“Power? No. Order. We need order to survive. We need order to be who we are. Without order we are nothing.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Of course. It is in our very fabric.”

“And what of family, Fen? You’re asking me to give up family.”

“You have Malt.”

“But Malt isn’t my flesh and blood.”

Fen’s gaze shifted to the path leading to the village. There stood Malt. I looked but I wished I hadn’t. She’d heard me.

“Craz!” I hissed. “Malt!”

As expected, she turned away and disappeared from my sight. What else could go wrong?

“I gotta go.” I didn’t wait for Fen to acknowledge what I said. I stood and ran after Malt. “Malt!” Hey!” She increased her pace down the hill and I had to slow down or lose my footing. Damn it! Why did she have to hear that? By the time I reached the village Malt was truly out of sight.

Denneck’s wife passed by. “Jeeka? Did you see Malt?”

“Sure. She went that way.” She pointed to the cave in the wall.

I looked up and saw Malt disappear inside. “Thanks.” I jogged up the path, but I was reduced to a slow walk by the time I reached the cave mouth. “Geez. She’s making me work for this.”

I suppose I should have expected that she wasn’t there. Malt was truly hurt. I continued along the tunnel until it reached the landing bay. Malt was on the other side of the hangar sitting at the rim of the cave.

“Malt?” She glanced at me over her shoulder then returned to her inspection of the view. “Honey?”

“I’m not your honey.” Malt said it quietly, but I heard it clearly.

“Yes, you are.”

“I heard every word.”

“No, you didn’t. Fen was trying to get me to accept something I didn’t want to.”

“You mean that I’m not your family? I got that.” She refused to look at me as I sat down beside her.

“I consider you family.”

“You said I was not your child.”

“Which is true. But you are family of my heart, Malt.” I tentatively reached for one of her hands. Would she take it? “The Noorthi are about to take Rice away from me. Fen was telling me that you were enough.”

“I’m not.” Malt looked at me with tears in her eyes.

“You listen to me.” I gave up waiting for Malt to make the first move, I grabbed her hand. “You are more than enough, but they’re telling me I can’t see her. Rice has to go to Noorthi school, and that means no outside distractions.”

“And for how long? A month? Two?”

“Until Rice is your age, Malt. They want me to go without seeing her for fifteen years.”

“That’s stupid!”

“Tell me about it.” I tugged on her hand. “You hold a special place in my heart, kid. But there’s also room for Rice.”

“And Beri.” Malt wiped the tears away.

“Beri?”

“Oh, come on. You had a child with her.”

“I held her hand! As Carn is my witness, that’s all I did!”

“Uh huh.” I had a feeling that whatever I said was not going to be enough in her book.

“Believe me when I say I wouldn’t give you up for… for…” I scrambled for something that held special meaning for me. “Heaven. Our home. You are my home, Malt. You’re the one I can count on to be there for me. I’ve run out of fingers and toes for the number of times you’ve saved my life. And I don’t trust just anyone with my life.”

As I spoke Malt’s sadness began to wane. I had done another monumentally stupid thing and my ochre-tainted words were healing an emotionally open wound. This was one time that I was glad I had the tattoo.

“So what are you going to do about Rice?” She voiced my fear.

“Anything I can. I’m not giving Rice up without a fight.”

“Maybe you can strike a deal,” Malt suggested.

“Yeah, a deal. But what can I offer them they don’t already have?”

Malt sat quietly for a moment, her gaze roaming over the view from the hanger bay. “It’s not the schooling that’s upsetting you, right? It’s the no contact.” I nodded. “How about a certain time of the day is your time, while the rest is Noorthi time?”

I had already thought of that, but I wasn’t going to let Malt know. If she was going to offer advice I’d take it. “Sounds interesting, but I’d like more time.”

“But you’re not going to get it. You’d be lucky to get them to agree to that.”

“I know.”

“It’s better than nothing.”

And I knew that was my only option. It was either see Rice for a little bit each day or not see her at all. Now all I had to do was to convince Beri that it was a great idea.

We sat together looking at the scenery spread out below us. It was a very pretty landscape, with blue skies, lush vegetation and a temperate climate.

“This moon is really great,” Malt said.

“Yeah, a hundred times better than Rigeus.”

“What was Rigeus like?”

“It was certainly not for the likes of you, my sweet Malt.” She smiled as I murmured the endearment. “It’s a penal planet, full of dust, sweltering hot days and no water. Then there were the nasty women prisoners.”

“Sounds pretty scary.”

“It was.” I leaned closer. “Just don’t tell Beri, okay?”

“There you are.” Epi trotted across the floor of the landing bay. “Grit is all worked up about one of her predictions.”

“She makes predictions?”

“All the time.”

“How come I didn’t know?”

Epi grinned at me. “Because they didn’t concern you?”

“You are such a smart ass.”

“So you keep saying.” Epi extended her hand to help me up. “I think you need to talk to her.”

“And do what? Beat her until she forgets what all the fuss was about?”

“We can’t oppose her visions. You can.”

“Why not? You’ve got as much right to tell her she’s wrong as the next Noorthi.”

Epi’s gaze dropped to the floor and she scuffed her boot.

“What?”

“She cannot be questioned on this. It is our way.”

“Is this another one of those secrets that I’m only going to find out about when there’s an emergency?”

“Yeah…”

“Something like that. Yeah, yeah, I know the drill.” After three years you would think the expression would have worn out its welcome. It appeared not.

“Excuse me, Malt. It seems I have another small Noorthi catastrophe to avert.” I let my hand ruffle her shaggy hair.

I walked alongside Epi across the hanger bay floor to the corridor leading to the cave. “What’s so special about Grit that her word is law?”

“She is hedera.”

I didn’t understand that word.

Hedera,” Epi repeated, as if I was supposed to be impressed. “She is our spiritual leader.”

“I though Beri was that.”

“Beri is Ashaltea, leader of the Juno Noorthi, but Grit is Hedera. She is our connection to all things, seen and unseen.”

“You mean something like a high priestess?” I’d read that somewhere.

“It may be, if a high priestess is the gateway to our spiritual well being.”

“A high priestess is a woman who offers prayers up to the god or goddess of whichever religion they represent. They can supposedly converse with the spirits on the other side.”

“The other side of what?”

Sometimes it was just easier to keep my mouth shut. “Between two planes of existence.” Epi stared at me. “Between the living and the dead, dummy.”

“That’s not quite it, but close. Grit has the ability to sense the ebb and flow of nature in all its forms in the universe. It is an elemental harmony that we seek, so that we are able to live life peacefully within the boundaries of space, time and the various existential planes.”

Epi’s explanation was going way over my head, so I opted for high priestess. “Then why is she your healer?”

“We lost our healer on Rigeus to Vel. Grit had some knowledge so she took up the mantle of healer as well.”

“I’m grateful that she did.” After all, Grit was the one who saved me from a grisly death by brain burnout. If she wanted to play medtech I wasn’t going to stop her. “So, is that topknot on Grit’s head too tight?”

“Huh?”

“You Noorthi have no sense of humor. What is she so upset about?”

“Maybe she should tell you.”

I grabbed Epi’s arm and stopped walking. “I’m asking you. What’s wrong?”

“She has had a vision.”

“And?” I had gotten that much information already. “Tell me something that I don’t know.”

“There will be a great upheaval.”

“Oh, Carn!” I started running through the corridor. “Sasha!” I yelled.

“What?” I heard Sasha’s faint voice from the other end.

“Get everyone out into the open. There’s going to be a cave in.” I was about to say earthquake but I didn’t have time for explanations. Whatever I wanted to call it, I needed to get as many people to safety before the moon swallowed them up.

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