The next morning, they were all on their way to fulfill their given duties. Yoran went to oversee the crossbow construction and placements, the Twins were off to train Guardians how to construct the bows and make arrows, and then train them to use them. Anyone could use a crossbow, just point and shoot, but true archery took practice. Jama and Jana left on a new mission to the Skree, and Guardians needed to be on patrol now that the Marn were back.
They had their crossbows and the modifications to their swords and daggers, as well as the diadems, they would have to wait their turn to get their bows, but the crossbows would be of great help if they needed to shoot the Marn from a distance. And they were carrying at least fifty crossbow bolts each. That was something he had ordered as soon as he got the designs. The smaller handheld crossbows and bolts had been distributed before the graduation, and now it was going to be standard issue for all Guardians. Besides, the crossbows were effective to range of at least five hundred meters, and that was what he needed when he asked Yoran to design the crossbows.
The Twins had settled in to teaching the others how to make bows. The process didn’t take long, the technique that Yoran had shown them was simple enough, alternate layers of Auroch horn with soft wood with tight straight grain, gluing each layer to the next and letting it dry, that took about three days, then mount the arms of the bows to the yoke, curve them using steam, then overlay the arms with a thin sheet of faron alloy to hold it and set the string notches, then make the string, make the arrow rest, and make arrow heads and arrows shafts, assemble them, and fletch the arrows. All told took a week to finish the bow. Then came the archery lessons and practice, practice, practice.
They spent two months training the Guardians, and to teach a select few who showed to be adept how to teach the others. Once they completed that task, they reported to Whitlaw for Ranger assignment. They were ready to be in the field and wanted to be part of the Rangers in the field.
Whitlaw assigned Jason to Jama and Jana’s squadron, but he kept Lantana at the Temple, he needed her to be there with the other twelve young women to train and learn how to use their ability to help all on Embrellon. That made her mother feel better, even though she still worried about Jason. He was in the field and could be in the midst of the fighting, and if the Marn came in force, Whitlaw would be in the field as well. He wasn’t one to command from the rear. He always led his troops in the field and she had never tried to make him change.
As they prepared for the next invasion by the Marn, Jason and Shandarro went on a forward scouting mission and came to the Cave where they had found the statue of the Skree in, he saw that there had been a lot of traffic around the place where they had met up with Regulon, and he wondered if any of the Skree were there. He asked Shandarro to check if any of the Skree were there, he said if they were, they weren’t talking, and Jason concerned about all the tracks decided to go and check anyway. He was astonished by what he found. In the mouth of the cave, he found several dead Skree, and their wings had been burned by a tremendous blast, the only thing he knew of that could make that kind of blast was a Marn weapon. He went further into the cave and found that it was a tunnel, and not a cave, as he went further in, using his dagger for light, he saw the purple ochre as it trailed forward through the tunnel, when he had gone about half a kilometer, he came upon two more dead Skree, and beyond them was Regulon, he was livid with rage, and ready to kill, he realized when he saw Jason that he knew him, and Shandarro spoke to Regulon. “What happened” he said, Regulon replied in short bated breaths, “We…were hunting….and we heard…screams…harsh, horrible, screams…we came to give help…and the Marn…had taken the…younglings you…see here…and were…burning their…wings…torturing them…to find out…where we were…they sacrificed…themselves to…save us.”
Jason was appalled, he also wanted to know how the Younglings would be able to answer the Marn if the Marn didn’t know they could talk. Regulon didn’t know why they would ask; he knew of no Skree that had ever talked to or in front of a Marn. Maybe it was just because they were sadistic. That wasn’t a good enough answer for Jason but he also had been around his father enough to know when not to press for an answer. The answer would come in due time, he just needed to wait for it. He told Regulon that he was going to head back, let Jama know what had happened and that he would notify his father. Regulon told him he had already sent word to Regulus, and his father would know already.
Jason headed back to meet up with Jama and the rest of the patrol. The whole time he pondered what had happened. How could the Marn know that the Skree could speak? He took an extended flight, he wanted to scout the area and find out if the Marn were still here, and if they were, he would send word to Jama to bring up the patrol crossbows ready. When he had flown the area for about an hour, he noticed something that seemed out of place. He was near where Yoran had been living and he saw that there was an odd discoloration where there should have been Yoran’s beehive house. He landed a good distance away, sent word to Jama about his location and that he was concerned about what he had seen from the air, and was scouting the area.
He entered the forest and with crossbow at the ready, he and Shandarro went forward cautiously, last thing he needed to do was to get hurt on his first mission. He would never hear the end of it especially from his mother, and he never liked letting his father down. The went forward quietly, every step placed with caution. Shandarro, as with all Skree, could move like a ghost, he wasn’t as stealthy, but with the new enhancements, he found he was able to move as silently as Rhela. They came upon the remains of the house. It had been burnt down, probably in retribution for the injuries that Yoran had given them.
He left the house and silently crept through the forest senses on edge. He kept going forward until he came upon the Marn camp. He could be in real trouble right now if he got caught. He looked to Rhela and they both backed out as quietly as possible, when they got back to the house, Jason mounted Rhela and he vaulted into the air. He was going to get reinforcements and then they would return and take care of these Marn savages.
He met up with Jama a few kilometers west of the Marn, told him what was up and where the Marn were located. An area they both knew well enough from being here with Yoran. Jama ordered them to land. This fight was going to take place on the ground. He told his Rangers to take the crossbows, and to have their bows ready as well. His idea was to ambush them, and to take them by surprise, and try to wipe them out as quickly as possible. He wanted a prisoner as well.
Jason guided them to the Marn camp, the Marn were sitting around camp, laughing and drinking. Alcohol had never been made on Embrellon and none of them had ever tasted it. So it held no fascination for them. They surrounded the camp and on a signal down the link, they fired their crossbows simultaneously, and took down most of Marn. They captured three the rest didn’t survive. They bound and blindfolded them and took them away from where they were on back of the Skree. They landed about fifteen kilometers away and waited for Whitlaw to arrive.
When he was informed of what the Marn had done to the Skree younglings, he got two squadrons of Guardians and headed to Jama’s location. He arrived within two hours and so did Regulon. Regulus had sent for him. Regulon was infuriated to the point that it took everything Regulus had in him to keep his brother from tearing the Marn to pieces, but Regulus finally persuaded him to let them question the Marn, and then with Whitlaw’s consent, they could do as they saw fit with them. After all, the crime was committed against the Free Skree on their territory, and Regulon was well within his rights to kill them on the spot. He had agreed to the questioning because they all needed information.
Whitlaw was a master interrogator, a side of him his son had never seen. Whitlaw could be cruel, when needed. He asked them the questions to protect the Skree secret. He didn’t need all the Guardians to learn that the Skree could speak, it was scary enough with just Jason, Jama and himself knowing, and he had no control over Regulon at all. If he spoke, there was nothing he could do about it. But Regulus had counselled him not to speak.
The Marn at first pretended not to understand them. That didn’t work, then they feigned not knowing what they were talking about. Regulon was beginning to growl at them, which unnerved them at the very least, and Whitlaw’s demeanor was menacing. Finally, Whitlaw looked at the insignia on their uniforms and told them that one was a Colonel, one was a Lieutenant, and one was a Sergeant. His knowledge of insignias seemed to astonish them, and when they got a good look at him, they realized he was no Vela, he was something else entirely. The Colonel pleaded for his life and swore to give them all the answers they wanted. Whitlaw said that he wouldn’t kill him, he never claimed to be speaking for Regulon. They learned that this was an advanced scouting party, trying to locate the Skree so that they could take the young with them back to Marn.
They hadn’t learned that the Skree could speak, but they knew they could be made to understand. The torture, that was because they weren’t cooperating, and what did they care, they were just animals with a gift, nothing more. When Whitlaw asked why they wanted the younglings who weren’t able to fly yet, the Colonel sneered and told him that they would take them to their world, remove their wings, and force them to fight to the death for amusement. That angered Whitlaw to his core. To eat them, he might understand, but to have them fight to the death for amusement, and to take their wings as well, was more than he could take. He wanted to know when to expect the follow up forces, the Colonel said that they were to finish their scouting trip, and meet back up with the main force in a month. That gave them time to get the heavy batteries completed.
Whitlaw looked at Regulon and with the nod of his great shaggy head, Whitlaw cut the Marn loose, when they had gotten a hundred meters from where they were, Free Skree dropped out of nowhere and took the Marn. That was the last that they were ever seen or heard from. Regulon said they would face Skree justice soon. No one dared ask what that meant.
Whitlaw gathered the Guardians together and told all of them to return to the Great Temple. They had the information they needed, now they needed to prepare. The flight back for Jason was long. He had seen his father fight the Marn, he had seen him protect others, but this was the first time he had ever seen his father interrogate someone, and he was still astonished at how cold and cruel his father could be. He wasn’t sure he knew his father at all.
He decided that to be a good leader, you did what was necessary. His father hadn’t killed the Marn captives, he left them to Skree justice. Knowing that the Skree would probably kill them, didn’t make it any easier, he could kill them, in fact, he had killed several in the attack, to him, it was different, they were in a battle. The laws the Guardians lived by and enforced included not executing prisoners. They exiled them, but the Skree didn’t live by those rules, they were a moral people he knew, and they didn’t condone killing without a need to hunt or to protect themselves, but this seemed to be different. These Marn were now unarmed, and seemingly defenseless. To him, this would be murder.
When they arrived back at the Temple, he decided to talk to Yoran, and share how he felt. The Vatarian knew his father better than anyone, and he was opposed to killing for any reason. He needed a voice other than his own to sort all of this out. He had never felt doubt before, and it made him ill.
He went to find Yoran and when asking about his whereabouts, he found out he was in the Craft halls working on the crossbows. He found him working with the Craft Masters on the design of the arms of one of the large ballista. He had worked on the design for years at his house. He took what information that Whitlaw had been able to provide, and created several working models. What he was working on now was making the ballista accurate at ranges of one thousand meters. Jason came up and asked if it was a good time to talk, and Yoran said he always had time for the young Guardian.
Jason told Yoran what had happened with the Marn, and how he felt. Yoran listened intently and then sat down and asked him to do the same. He looked into his eyes and started speaking, “Wars can bring out the best in people or the worst in people. I have been among the Skree long enough to understand their laws. You are concerned about your father’s actions as being cause for concern. Skree law doesn’t permit execution. They, as we, deliver justice by exile. They would have taken the Marn back to their council, tried them, and then after dispensing just punishment, they will exile them far to the north. It won’t be easy for the Marn to survive there, but they can survive. Your father knows this, and would find that an acceptable punishment.” That was a relief to Jason, and restored his faith in his father.
After speaking with Yoran, Jason went to find Lantana. He wanted to know how she was, and he could have just asked Rhela to ask her how she was, but he really wanted to see her for himself. He found her with the other young women who had also feinted. They were working together to attempt seeing through the eyes of a Skree that was far to the north on a Ranger mission. The Skree was called Tarmand and his rider was the oldest son of Jama, Jamar. Jama was one of the few Guardians who had a mate who was not a Guardian. He had decided shortly after being bonded, that he didn’t want to bond with a fellow bonded person. He knew it could be considered selfish as the Skree bonded for life, and if Jama wasn’t bound to a Guardian then Skelon wouldn’t be bound to a Skree mate. It was unheard of to be bonded to one woman and then be with another woman. The moral code was based on the fact that if the Skree bonded, they would refuse to be separated.
Lantana and the Seers finally broke from their session. It was as strenuous for them to try and see through a Skree as it was to be in a pitched battle. They had finally reached Tamand, and were satisfied that he had found nothing so far and would contact them when they did. When Lantana looked up and saw Jason, she was as relieved to see him as he was to see her. They both had come far since the day they had bonded. Shandarro bowed his head in greeting to Lantana and Braela, as well as the other Seers and their Bond-Mates. It was something new for all of them. They now had a way to communicate with any Guardian anywhere, and could get reports instantaneously regardless of where they were on the planet.
Jason told her that they were expected that evening in their parent’s rooms. The quarters for the Guardians were separated by whether or not they were joined with another, or were Rangers. Their parent’s rooms were spacious enough for the four of them when growing up, and now he lived in the Ranger quarters and Lantana had moved into new quarters set aside for the Seers.
All their rooms were the same, sleeping area, bathing and toilet room, and a small area where they could relax. The Guardians all took meals in the mess hall, and there was staff who were responsible for the running of the common areas. The quarters were beside the temple in the larges underground cavern known on the planet. It housed the Guardians, the Clerics, the Archives and the Craft Halls. They couldn’t build in the open as on other planets, the Marn invasions prevented them from building on the surface.
The Great Temple was built of solid Tanzite, everything was either quarried, sculpted, or assembled underground. That was why the Marn had never found them. The few locations that the Marn had found had been excavated to the point that part of it was in the rock and wherever that happened they would be located.
The Bonding Cave, the Armory of the Companions, and the tunnel that Jason had found above the Companion Cave, were in solid tanzite surrounded by faron deposits. The Marn would literally have to fall into one of them to find them.
He and Lantana had joined their parents in their rooms and Jason decided that it was time to ask his father what he was planning. His father had spent most of his adult life in battles, from Epsilon to Orion. They had formed the basis of his life and he was a Military Historian. The ballista, crossbows, bows, swords and daggers, and armor had all come from his knowledge of Earth History. He had taught battle tactics and weapons at the Academy on Earth. He was considered to be the foremost expert in the Earth Space Forces Elite, had risen to the rank of Colonel, and Captain of the Rapier. He was the best tactician that Earth had, and he was on Embrellon fighting for its very survival.
Once they had enjoyed their meal of roasted Auroch, with a rich gravy, roasted tubers, and kaba, they settled in to relax and enjoy being together. The evening had been quiet up to that time, and then Braela spoke, “We have had a lot of changes happening lately and it is the eve of the gravest time since the exodus for all of us. If we aren’t able to stop the Marn, they will destroy every living being on this planet. What is the plan you have to stop that Whitlaw?” It shocked all of them when Braela spoke. Not because she spoke, but because of the understanding she had of the situation.