DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Jacqueline Bielowicz and is copyright (c) 1981 by Jacqueline Bielowicz. Rated PG. Originally printed in Guardian #3, edited by Cynthia Levine and Linda Deneroff.

The Winds of Decision

Jacqueline Bielowicz

The bright orange rim of Vulcanis slipped over the horizon, sharply casting the homestead into sudden light. The workers in the k'orft fields paid no attention as the star's light warmed the surrounding land and enriched the glittering crimson color of the k'orft. It was not that the workers did not appreciate the beauty of their land, but rather that time was limited during the harvest and the crop was almost too much for one homestead to handle. Only T'Jahl took the time to look up from her work, to gaze with appreciation and apprehension at her home. There was an unusual atmospheric pressure drop and it made her uneasy. Somehow she sensed a threat to the harvest -- but there was no logical reason for it.

ShiKahr, less than three years old, now held 3,000 people, all disciples of Surak. The settlement was laid out in concentric circles, surrounding the Science Study Center. The broad, straight main streets, extended like spokes of a wheel, were lined with graceful buildings that harmonized with the harsh desert. Around the homestead, a narrow band of red, yellow, and purple plant life provided food for itself and trade goods for neighboring homesteads. ShiKahr was an experiment: to prove that Vulcans could learn to live with their desert and still control its harshness enough to feed themselves. Between the scientists and agriculturists like T'Jahl, the Vulcans were learning crop control, irrigation, and a multitude of other related skills that would help the people turn from war to peace.

T'Jahl had been born in a Logician family, raised in the Tenets of Surak, but still she could not totally control her love of the land. She was a sturdy woman with broad, strong hands. Her coarse black hair, tinged with brown sun-bleached streaks, was pulled sternly back from her almost plain face and bound tightly around her squarish head. She had a wide generous mouth and placid clear eyes under thick upswept eyebrows. As she gazed around her, she gave a small involuntary sigh of contentment. Though half of Vulcan had not accepted the Peace of Surak, she had lived all her 42 years in comparative peace; she had her work, her new homestead, and her Bondmate, Soron, who completed her Joy. The only thing she lacked was a child, but she would have a son when the spring came back to Vulcan.

Suddenly aware of the passing time, T'Jahl returned to the harvesting. Her supple fingers plunged into the rich red soil, skillfully pulling out the edible root and breaking it off neatly. The uprooted plant she stacked on a nearby pile; the stalks would be reduced to fertilizer and returned to the fields. In three more days, she thought, the harvest will be done...

An unfamiliar blare of horns roared across the settlement. T'Jahl's head jerked toward the sound, her eyes widening in surprise. Warriors! She jumped to her feet and ran toward the homestead with the rest of the females while the male workers formed a defensive shield between them and the attackers. Frantic thoughts tumbled through T'Jahl's mind as she quickly dashed through the teeming, but ordered crowds. Where were the guards? How had Warriors gotten this close to the homestead without an alarm being sounded? Every citizen knew his job: the males formed the first line of defense while the younger women formed the secondary line. This would give the older children, the elderly, and pregnant women time to herd the small children to safety away from the attack. But T'Jahl could see that wasn't going to work this time. She could hear the war horns all around the city; ShiKahr was completely surrounded.

The circle of defenders was ruthlessly pushed back. Most of the defenders went down to the blunted end, but often not before felling the enemy with a neck pinch. T'Jahl fought furiously, but she was no proof against two determined Warriors. They pushed her to the ground and with a few rapid movements, bound her hands and feet with hunter's wire. T'Jahl lay quietly, watching the battle continue. Some of the Warriors were beginning to loot the nearby houses; as they did so, gaps appeared in their lines.

Confusion reigned in the streets. Children screaming from fright mixed with the excited yells of the Warriors. Flames licked through some of the houses, adding smoke to the billowing dust. T'Jahl saw ShiKahr's Defense Chief, Slin, and a few hundred young men and teen-age boys dashing down a street in a flying wedge, yelling, "Kal-i-ahr!" Immediately, citizens began throwing themselves on the invaders, hampering them in any way they could. Even the children and those bound like T'Jahl did what they could. Slin and his men broke through the enemy lines, scattering out through the desert. They would warn other homesteads and bring back help. Warriors started out after them, but most remained to divide the spoils.

Once it was seen that Slin had made it through, the homesteaders surrendered and an uneasy peace fell over the settlement. At first the two groups stared at each other in disbelief. Then the enemy citizens were rounded up and separated, the men from the women and children. The men were all bound and heavily guarded, but the women were free and only casually watched. T'Jahl sat wearily on the ground, savoring a moment to be grateful that Soron was on a trade mission to neighboring homesteads; then she settled her mind to observe and collect facts. The other women, too, say quietly, collecting the Peace of Surak around them and calming the small children. The wounded had been collected in a separate place and those who were not despatched by the Warriors were being helped into healing trances by the Healers. But still their guards nervously watched their passive captives.

Other warriors worked at emptying the buildings of portable loot. T'Jahl noticed that, according to their uniforms, they were of different homesteads. Alliances among the Warriors were not unusual, but that there should be so many different homesteads represented was disturbing. Indeed, the philosophers had predicted that when the Peace movement reached the half-way point among Vulcans, the Warrior homesteads might be threatened enough to combine. It looked as though they had been correct. But the alliance was not solid, if the numerous quarrels that broke out among the Warriors was any indicator. A great deal of time was spent by officers keeping the lower ranks from killing each other over disputed loot.

The Logicians sat patiently in the burning sun as the hours passed. Occasionally a child would cry from thirst. Finally, as the sun was beginning to sink below the mountains. Warriors passed out water and traveler's fare. T'Jahl chewed on the tough, dry, but highly nourishing cake and tried to figure out how long it would be before they could expect rescue. She calculated they would have to delay the enemy at least 10 days. But in that time, the captives could be divided among so many different homesteads that they would never be found.

T'Jahl felt someone slip to the ground next to her and turned her head to observe. It was her neighbor, T'Cahyn. The other woman's face was strained, her eyes pained. She murmured softly, "Storn is dead."

T'Jahl felt a sympathetic pain tear through her breast, though her face remained calm. To lose a Bondmate...! "The twins?" she whispered.

"Somar escaped with Sliv; I haven't seen Sasar. I didn't feel him die, but I can't see him with the other men. I haven't seen him since he took the morning meal to the perimeter guards."

The darkness was garishly lighted by the battery powered service lights that the Warrior army carried. The harsh lights overwhelmed the softer lights of the homestead as the Warriors celebrated their victory. Several of the younger women were dragged into the party and became the center of attention to large groups of drunken, boisterous Warriors. Occasionally one of them could be heard screaming. The remaining women huddled together, some softly weeping. T'Jahl desperately recited the Tenets of Surak in her mind, but they were hard to remember within the living nightmare. She and T'Cahyn sat close together, not touching, but gathering strength from each other. Eventually, the madness died down and quiet fell over the stricken homestead.

A slow, cold wind blew over the group, muffling the measured tread of the Warrior guards. One by one, the bruised rape victims crept back into the group who murmured words of encouragement and comfort. T'Jahl watched the wheeling stars, counting off the passing time. The cold stars had a red tinge to them, as if they had become the blossom of the k'orft plant. T'Jahl sat up straighter, hope surging inside her.

"T'Cahyn. The sky. Look at the sky!" she whispered urgently.

T'Cahyn looked at the intent agriculturist. "What is it?"

There was a faint smile on T'Jahl's lips. "The sky tells me that help is on its way."

T'Cahyn looked bewildered, then said flatly, "That is not logical. The sky is an inanimate thing; it cannot 'tell' anything."

"It can if you know how to read it. There is going to be a molurn. Probably within two yahvee, maybe less."

T'Cahyn shook her hair behind her shoulders. "Impossible. The molurn season will not be here until after the harvest, more than 17 yahvee from now."

"Remember the Legend of Tar'dekin? Of the monster molurn that blew for 100 days? It blew the homestead Yalkee off the face of Vulcan!"

"That is only a legend!"

"All legends are based on some truth. The meteorologists say that every 5,000 years or so, our planet's orbit is just right around the two suns so that weather conditions cause giant molurns. It's not one storm, but a series of them, and the winds can get up to 150 kilometers an hour. The meteorologists have predicted that it's time for one but they haven't been sure since the science is still so new. But all the ancient records tell of the giant molurns, the ones that are unpredictable and last for many yahvee. I tell you, there is one on the way now."

"And a legendary storm is going to rescue us?" T'Cahyn was patently disbelieving.

"Hardly. But an unexpected molurn could provide us with many opportunities to help ourselves, especially since we know beforehand that it is coming. The suddenness of it will surprise the Warriors and catch them off guard."

T'Cahyn began to understand. "Let's spread the news."

The two women slipped quietly through the darkness, moving from group to group. By dawn, every woman and child of ShiKahr knew of the coming storms.

With the new day, the Warriors began the lengthy process of dividing up the spoils. T'Jahl and T'Cahyn stayed close together and became part of the 500 new slaves now owned by the Homestead of Myrhe. T'Cahyn had one piece of "good news": she saw her youngest son, Sasar, in the slave lot belonging to the Paldma Homestead. The youth had a wicked laceration along the back of his head, but he was steady on his feet. They exchanged one long glance and T'Jahl knew it was a farewell on the v'k'tyl link, the parental bond that the 14 year-old boy still shared tenuously with his parent.

Shortly after mid-day, the Warriors began moving out, heading back to the safety of their respective homesteads. During the long march throughout the rest of the blistering day, T'Jahl kept watch of the terrain. Somewhere, somehow there would be an opportunity to gain an advantage and T'Jahl planned on being ready with any weapon, any defense.

The desert gave way to the harsh, rocky foothills and the captives found the going a little rougher, particularly the hobbled men who had a great deal of trouble navigating across the jagged, piercing rocks. A strong wind blew a fine dust in the air, adding to their problems. As the sun touched the tops of the mountains, the Warriors gave the order to make night camp. The exhausted captives sank where they stopped, many falling into a light healing trance.

The women were ordered to set up the camp while the children, accompanied by taunting Warriors, were roughly pushed out on a search for khip, the dried animal droppings suitable for night fires. Already the screams of hunting le-matyas were echoing through the canyons surrounding the camp. After the Warriors had eaten and drunk their fill, the women were allowed to tend to the captive men. For most of them, the healing trance had provided the necessary rest; the remainder, most injured, remained in the trance for the night. T'Jahl and T'Cahyn helped serve food and water. Despite the close watchfulness of the Warriors who had forbidden verbal communication, the message of the coming giant molurn was passed along. That night many eyes gazed at the red tinge in the sky.

The evening of the third day found the group at the small summit of the mountains, ready for a morning descent onto the plain of Xx'vytr. After two days of the solid ground-eating stride the Warriors set, even the stronger, younger women were exhausted. T'Cahyn moaned as she settled to the ground after the nightly tasks were done. Still, T'Jahl paced the perimeter of the camp, watching the sky anxiously. The red blackness of the night was obvious to all now and a shrieking wind howled from the lowlands. The Warrior guards paced their rounds in pairs instead of singly, fearfully watching the strange sky.

"It will be here before morning," T'Jahl whispered to T'Cahyn. "We cannot be here when it comes. This place is too unprotected. We will have to tell the Warriors so we can move to safer ground."

T'Cahyn jerked herself to a sitting position. "If we tell them of the molurn, we lose the element of surprise!"

"If we don't move from here," T'Jahl responded harshly, "none of us will survive!"

"Specify." The command came from T'Olvut, who had overheard them. Logician and Matriarch of the group, it was she who made the final decisions and acted as liaison with Saur, War Chief of the Myrhe.

"T'Olvut, we could wait out a regular molurn with the normal survival techniques we learned in childhood. But with this giant storm, that will not be enough. The winds alone will be three to four times as strong, and last days: two, or even three, yahvee." T'Jahl pointed out the facts. "The sand could strip the flesh off our bones in a matter of seconds and the electrical disturbances in the atmosphere will cause almost constant lightning storms. There will be great swirling winds that will suck up even great stones. The legends tell us there were also large land displacements, earthquakes and landslides. The atmospheric pressure will probably also vary greatly. Where we are now is just too open. We need to seek shelter!"

"Such as the caves of the Ancients? We could never make them before the storm began, which means getting there will take longer than normal and we will need to travel a path where the hunting is good."

"Will it be necessary to eat animal flesh?" T'Cahyn asked distastefully.

"Not necessarily, but probably. Few plants will survive the winds. We are talking about survival, the most basic kind of survival," T'Jahl answered firmly as a full vision of what could happen settled upon her.

T'Olvut pondered silently as the two younger women watched her. Gazing at the reddening sky, she nodded her head slowly. "I will speak with Saur."

She strode over to the nearest Warrior, speaking quietly to him. After a few moments of argument, he led her off into the night. T'Jahl and T'Cahyn moved around the captive women, wakening them, preparing them for the anticipated move. When the orders came down, the camp sprang into life. T'Olvut rejoined T'Jahl and T'Cahyn as the march began.

"He did not totally believe me," the Matriarch said, "but he is willing to accept that there is an unusual molurm coming and has ordered movement to the Water of Mishak. He expects us to be there only a day or so. Will the Water be safe enough for the giant molurn, T'Jahl?"

"I do not know, T'Olvut, but it is safer than here. Perhaps we will be able to move to a better place after Saur realizes that the molurn is all you told him it would be."

* * *

The night march was hellish. The darkness combined with the ever-increasing wind-driven sand to blind the Vulcans. Soon it became obvious that traveling as they were was suicide. The captive men were freed and, linking hands with the Warriors, formed a protective circle. The very small children were carried; the weak were supported by the strong. After what seemed like eons of walking to T'Jahl, they reached Water of Mishak by literally falling into the depression in the land that formed the oasis. They scrambled to the bottom where most of the killing wind was blocked. It was hard just to hear the shouted commands of the women as the men arranged the travel tents into shelters. People huddled together under the lorn hide tents, regardless of whether they were Warriors or captive. Before the winds, it didn't matter.

No one was ever to know how long they crouched in their pitiful shelters. Food and water were scarce. The sand crept under the edges of the tents, filling their mouths and noses with gritty irritations. The heat and smell of their own bodies and excrements added to their agony. Finally, the unceasing sound of the winds and the constant cramped stillness of their bodies numbed their minds to a brute acceptance. Individuals wept softly, howled maniacally with the wind, or died quietly.  When the lull came, there were few who were aware of it.

* * *

T'Jahl slowly became conscious that the winds had reduced. Disbelieving, she emerged slowly from her refuge. Saur and T'Olvut were already directing salvage operations. The sand and wind were still heavy but it was more like a regular molurn and the survivors were reacting instinctively.

Several of the men were digging for water buried under the oasis while others were sorting the living from the dead. T'Olvut motioned to Saur, and the two of them headed over to T'Jahl.

"Is it over?" growled the Warrior leader. He was a compact man, at the younger edge of middle-age. His face was grizzled, set with piercing, intelligent eyes. Even his torn, dirty uniform could not remove his air of quiet dignity and power.

"I don't know for sure, comner. I am not a meteorologist, but if the legend is true... No, this is but a small reprieve."

He and T'Olvut exchanged significant looks, then he shrugged. "Very well, I'll believe you ... for now." He strode across the Water, shouting orders to his Warriors.

The precious liquid was painstakingly siphoned from the sand-clogged spring while others of the group spread out in a search for food. All plant life was gone and even the edible roots were difficult to find without their surface stalks to mark their place. The bulk of the captives was put to work digging out a series of trenches, using the surrounding rocks as bases. The survivors were divided up among the trenches to hold two men, one woman and one child. Saur ordered the badly wounded destroyed.

"Kroykah!" shouted T'Olvut.

The Warriors hesitated, looking for confirmation from their astounded leader. Saur bellowed, "You have your orders!"

"Comner..." T'Olvut began when a hard backhand across the mouth from Saur knocked her to the dust.

"You forget your place, woman! You are captive here, not the commander."

The Warriors swiftly, efficiently slit the throats of the injured as the Logicians watched numbly. T'Olvut carefully rose to her feet, ignoring the blood trickling down her chin. She drew to her full height before the War Chief, calmly meeting him, eye to eye.

"Comner, each life that is brought forth on Vulcan is precious. If we are to survive, we will need all the skill and resources at our disposal. If it is your intention that we all die here, then you might as well kill all of us now. We will tolerate no further destruction of the wounded."

T'Jahl and T'Cahyn moved behind the Matriarch, followed by the rest of the Logicians. The Warriors, nervously gripping their weapons, grouped behind the War Chief. The two bedraggled camps faced each other, the silence broken only by the rising, keening wind.

"Choose now, comner. The winds return," stated T'Jahl.

Saur cast a wary eye to the threatening skies. "For now, I will agree. Time will prove who is right. Now, get to the shelters!"

* * *

The returning storm and those that followed were increasingly ferocious. During the lulls, the people moved onward, attempting to find the cave of the Ancients, but it soon became apparent that they were lost in the desert. The skies were obscured by the billowing dust and the pollution from distant active volcanoes. On the third day, the greatly reduced party found an area pocketed with small caves.

The two separate groups had slowly blended together as their numbers were decimated. Each lull brought forth a smaller number of survivors. Twice, a cave they were using collapsed due to the frequent earth tremors. As food became harder to find, they were forced to flee from one place of shelter to seek another, further adding to their risk. The Healer did what he could for the injured, even managing to induce healing trances in some of the Warriors.

Still, even with his skill, some of the injured did not come out of the healing trance, and of those who did, most were unable to take care of themselves or contribute to the survival of the group. At Saur's command, and with the reluctant agreement of T'Olvut, they were put to death.

Slowly, the intensity of the storms began to abate. Everyone was encouraged at the signs of the giant molurn's end. With each lull, there were fewer deaths -- or perhaps, T'Jahl thought, those who were left were true Vulcan survivors. Their bodies were honed down, whip-cord taut, and attuned to the slightest change in their environment. They worked together as a team with few disagreements. When there was plenty of food, they shared equally; when food was sparse, they still shared. Most of their time was spent in hunting food.

* * *

T'Jahl was with a hunting party on the forty-first day, digging at the base of a rock outcrop some six kilometers from the cave. She was hoping that she would find wild yelp, a plant that often grew in sheltered areas. She had two children as her assistants; they worked silently beside her, ready to move on her signal if needed, veterans of the molurn's sudden returns. The other adults in the party were skinning out a half-starved baby sehlat they had managed to find while Saur stood guard against the returning winds.

Suddenly the earth began to pitch, yawing wide beneath their feet. Everyone scrambled for safety, but Saur was caught as the earth closed just as suddenly, trapping him to the waist. As the last rumbles of the earthquake died away, the party rushed to the Warrior leader. He was still conscious and a trickle of green blood oozed out of the corner of his mouth. Two Warriors pried at the earth with their lirpas while T'Jahl knelt beside the War Chief, offering to share the pain in the method taught by the Logicians. The only thing saving Saur from death was a large boulder that had fallen with him; it kept the ground from completely crushing him, but even so, T'Jahl could tell that he was gravely injured.

"No...no," Saur whispered, his eyes dull with pain. "Do not waste the time. You work to free a dead man. Return to the cave while there is still time. Too soon the molurn will return."

T'Jahl smiled gently, "In all else, comner, we will obey you, but not in this." Her blunt fingers found the right point on his shoulder and eased him into unconsciousness. She looked up at the Warriors who had stopped digging on their leader's command and stared at them until they resumed their work. They lifted him out, his lower half grotesquely distorted, and using the sehlat's raw hide as a rough litter, they carried him back to the cave.

The survivors waited for the Healer's evaluation. "The legs and spine are crushed, T'Olvut, but he will live. With a healing trance, he can become strong enough to be taken back to ShiKahr in a litter for further medical treatment."

T'Olvut looked at T'Jahl. "How long before it will be safe enough to travel?"

The younger woman did some rapid calculations. "If the storms continue to diminish as they have, we could safely leave here in three days. By then, the winds will be like a normal molurn."

T'Olvut nodded. "That is acceptable. Put him in the healing trance."

The Healer carefully placed his hands around Saur's head. There was initially some resistance, then Saur's breathing slowed to almost nothing. Those watching released their held breath with a soft sigh. "We must prepare for our journey," T'Olvut said.

While Saur lay in the healing trance, the rest of the group made ready to return home. With the dying winds, large, hungry, frightened land animals crept out from hiding. Only groups of men went hunting now; the women remained behind to guard the cave from predators. Warriors and Logicians alike carried weapons.

The women prepared journey fare, food that would travel well. Though there were other minor accidents, no one else fell victim to the giant molurn. By the end of the second day, all was in readiness.

* * *

On the morning of the sixth day, Saur still had not aroused from his trance and the Healer was not able to bring him out of it. He went to report his failure to T'Olvut. "He has gone down so far that I can do nothing to revive him. Since we could not kill him, he has decided to kill himself this way."

"Can you help me gain contact with him?"

The Healer looked doubtful. "It is possible, but it could be extremely dangerous for you. He could trap you with him and I might not be able to save either of you."


The Healer reached out his right hand, firmly gripping T'Olvut's hand, his fingers encompassing nearly half her skull. T'Olvut mirrored the action with her left hand on his head. As their minds blended and strengthened with the sureness of practice, they each reached their free hands to the head of the man lying between their crouching bodies. The flickering light from the feeble fire cast shadows of the three people dancing on the wall, like the ancient paintings of the Ones-Who-Came-Before. Beyond their tiny circle, the rest of the world slowly receded, halting all time.

They entered the dark void of Saur, a darkness that was heavy and dismal. From the very edge of Saur's mind, they encountered resistance, a maelstrom of protest. They projected calm determination and searched for the essence that was Saur. After searching for eons through murky passages filled with nebulous figures, they finally reached a solid dark red wall. A thousand war horns blared from beyond it. //LEAVE ME!!! GO NO FURTHER!!!//

They formed themselves into a cold blue wedge, inexorably penetrating the wall. The more it tried to repel them, the stronger, more solid the wedge became. The blue wedge found a flaw in the wall which then crumbled to dust around them. In the center, they saw Saur as he must have been as a young Warrior, in full shiny armor standing before a fire without heat. A molurn blew from a distant mountain, colder than any that had been felt on Vulcan.

They drew up beside the fire and gazed at Saur across the chilly fire. //Saur, we need you. Come with us.//

He smiled sadly, staring deeply into the flames. //As one who lives on the charity of the Homestead? I have been War Chief, and every War Chief before me has died in battle. I will not be the first to live as a cripple. Can your sorcery make me walk again?// With his words, the darkness around them drew closer.

They held a swift consultation and the Healer withdrew part way, to stand ready as a bridge to life. T'Olvut held out her hand. //Saur, my old friend, look at me.//

Slowly he raised his head; old weary eyes looked out of a young face.

//Saur, a new age is coming to Vulcan. No one can stop it, but there is much you can do to speed its way.//

//I don't believe in your Surak!//

//But you believe in life. For centuries, Vulcan has sent her best, her strongest to die in war. Those badly injured in battle were killed by comrades who thought to spare them the humiliation of uselessness. What of the children they never had? Or of the children reduced to the twilight world of your society until a son was old enough to become a Warrior, in order to return to favored status? Has Vulcan ever given way to just the strong, or is it the mind in control, that can think, that overcomes? The Logicians are winning, not because our men are stronger. We win because we do not waste a single person. No matter how badly damaged a child is born, we can find some way for him to contribute. We do not send our young men to die in futile wars, trying to win what our minds and work can earn for us.//

//So, T'Olvut, you would convert me to your ways.//

//Think of it as another kind of warfare, comner.// T'Olvut stood serenely, her hands clasped lightly in front of her. //Only this time the enemy is waste and ignorance. Fight first for your own right to live in dignity, then fight for the rights of others.//

Saur watched her intently.

//After all, comner,// she continued slyly, //it is not as if you do not have some skill in fighting uneven odds.//

From the outer edge of Saur's mind, the Healer watched as T'Olvut argued with Saur. The texture of Saur's mind slowly began to change.

* * *

T'Jahl sat at the doorway of the crude tent made from half-cured animal hides, watching the gentle rains that always marked the end of molutns heal the ravaged countryside. They had been traveling for three days and had finally reached a known landmark. Behind her, Saur finished the soup she had brought him. To Saur, her profile revealed contentment, peace with her world. "What are you thinking of, little one?" he asked.

She glanced back at him over her shoulder, faintly amused at being called "little one" by someone who was only larger than her by age.

"My husband is near and the rains will be renewing my fields." She turned to face him. "Will I be going to them both, comner?"

"Yes, little one. My Warriors and I can not make slaves of 'lirpa-brothers'. We have shared too much. Besides, there will be much my people will have to do when we return to Myrhe. It will probably be the toughest battle we have ever fought and we will be using strange weapons ... words and ideas."

She nodded, then turned back to the outside as T'Olvut's voice drifted across the camp. The Matriarch stood unheeding in the pouring rain as she directed the packing of new food supplies.

"Tell me, little one. Is that one 'bonded', as you call it?"

T'Jahl smiled secretly to herself. "No, comner."

"Hmm ... a most unusual woman." The silence stretched a few moments. "No doubt she would be willing to help me with the finer points if I need it." He sounded half-embarrassed, like a young man about his first woman.

"No doubt, comner." T'Jahl laughed gently.

Together, they watched the gentle rains wash clean the earth.