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Beast Master's Quest
By Norton, Andre
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Two riders hurtled across the edge of the desert, laughing and whooping. In front of them raced an old frawn bull, his nostrils red-rimmed partly from his rasping breaths but partly also from mounting fury. He was lord of the desert fringe, and these creatures presumed to hunt him as though he were a rock-rabbit? He would show them! He slowed as his rage gained the upper hand.
Beside the riders ran a great catlike creature, tall and rangy of limb, driven by powerful ropy muscles which bunched and flowed as he easily kept up with the horses. The catlike creature was possessed of a skull which held ample room for a good brain. His coloring was black and gold, the shorter black fur sheathing face, tail, and legs, while longer golden fur flowed over the trunk. From his black-masked face, intelligent eyes of a rich light purple looked out on a world Prauo still found infinitely interesting, particularly when in the company of his own human and her beloved.
It was the feline, Prauo, who saw the frawn bull's intention first. He mind-sent speedily:
*Furless-sister, beware! The beast turns at bay.*
Laris reined aside so quickly it might have seemed to an onlooker that thought and action were one. As she did so she cried a warning to Logan Quade.
"Look out, swing wide!"
But hercry had been fractions of a second too late. The bulky animal had come around with a speed and agility almost unbelievable in so large a beast. Horns hooked as the startled horse leaped backwards, rearing onto its hind legs with a wild twist as it attempted to avoid the lethal armament of the frawn bull. It did so, but the right horn slid under the saddle girth, and, as the bull jerked back savagely, the girth parted.
Logan landed hard on the unyielding ground, his body rolling over as his head hit the concrete-hard surface. He gave a small groan as he slumped, briefly stunned. But that fleeting moment was all the bull would require. It spun and returned, eyes red with fury, head already lowering to scoop and toss. Then it would gore the life from this upstart on its world. It would . . .
But Prauo was there already, standing over his human's beloved, a slow, shuddering thunder in his throat. He was small in comparison to the massive old frawn bull, but the claws and teeth he bared were not to be despised, even in comparison with the horns and brute power of the frawn.
This was an old wild-born bull; he'd never been a member of the semidomesticated herds of Arzoran ranchers. In his time he'd fought to survive against long odds and here again he was smart enough to see the threat to his survival.
He slowed, considering. It would be a satisfaction to kill, but would that be worth the damage he might sustain from this odd creature? He decided it would, and lunged forward. But his hesitation had been all that was necessary. Riding like her sister-in-law who was half Cheyenne, Laris came racing in hard, spinning her horse to slow it beside Logan.
"Up behind me, quickly!"
He staggered to his feet, obeyed the urgent tug of her hand, and, still slightly giddy from the blow to his head, mounted clumsily behind her. Laris sent her mount racing away.
Prauo made a threatening dart at the frawn bull. It lowered its massive head and almost snarled at him. Prauo snarled back. The bull felt honor was satisfied and, snorting still in irritation, trotted ponderously towards the east. It was closing on sun-high, and temperatures were rising. It was better to drowse in the shade of desert scrub than to stand bandying threats with this creature.
Prauo grinned after it. They'd both been bluffing to some extent. He'd prefer not to fight something that size and with a male frawn's weapons, but then the bull had felt the same way. Prauo trotted off to round up the grazing horse and herd it back to stand beside its lost saddle. Laris came walking her mount back, a now clearer-headed Logan arguing from behind her as they came.
"Dad wouldn't want that bull on our range. You know what an old rogue is like. He'll steal frawn cows, fight other bulls, and he's a danger to anyone who comes across him, especially if he sees them first. We should go after him."
Laris snorted. "Nope. Not after that spill. We go back to the ranchhouse and have the med-cabinet check you over. Then we see what Brad thinks."
"I hate that damned med-cabinet. All it ever says is--" he imitated the computer-voice, "Please stand in the cabinet, please shut the door, thank you, your assistance is appreciated." Laris was giggling so Logan continued, exaggerating the nasal whine of the med-kit. He loved to make her laugh; there'd been too little laughter in her life until he'd met her, almost a year ago.
"Please do not fidget, it is counterproductive. It may be an indication you have fleas. I can recommend a good insecticide. Please do not laugh, it is counter-productive as I cannot focus my instruments, I must administer a sedative if you do not stop. It may in addition be an indication you have Jolly disease. I can recommend . . ."
By this time he was laughing too hard to continue and Laris was bent over her horse's mane almost crying with laughter. It wasn't only what Logan said, it was also the perfect imitation of the computer voice, and she could just imagine it saying that sort of thing if the cabinet occupant fidgeted or laughed too long.
Prauo was sitting nearby, his tongue lolling out of his mouth in his own expression of amusement. Once they'd tried the med-cabinet for a deep scrape he'd acquired in chasing grass-hens. The poor machine--one of the older, larger, and more basic models--had almost had a nervous breakdown.
Prauo didn't have hands to operate the buttons intended for human fingers. Laris had shut herself in with him to
do that and the med-cabinet had given them all sorts of warnings about being overweight, along with suggestions for diet.
Logan shrugged. Machines, they were useful, but it was as well to have intelligent beings operating them. They could compensate for the machine's inflexibility. He managed to stop chuckling as he moved to re-saddle his mount. Riders usually carried a small repair kit with an awl and leather thongs in a saddlebag. He could lash the girth together temporarily and it would hold until they reached home, so long as he stayed at a walk.
With the saddle secured again he mounted, and they turned their horses to ride towards home. He remembered then what he had seen as he reeled up from the ground.
"Prauo? Thanks for that. If you hadn't held him off me I might have been left in no shape for even the cabinet to fix."
Prauo's mind-voice resonated warmly within Logan's head. *I believe the human term is 'you're welcome,' Logan.*
"You know, I can't believe how well you manage to speak to people now."
*I too wonder at times.*
Laris chimed in. "I know, you wonder how it is you are intelligent, if it's natural, and if so . . ."
*From where, then, do I come? From what world and people? Yes, I question such things. It does not eat at me as your own heritage ate at you, sister, but all intelligent beings wonder at times, and now and again I do. There is another thing I wonder: If I am the cub of an intelligent race, what lies in my genes? Will I continue to change? What if medical problems common to my people arise?*
Logan sobered, reflecting that for someone who didn't find the mystery of his heritage eating at him, Prauo certainly had a few questions. They were valid ones, as well, Logan reflected. It wasn't impossible that in times to come Prauo could find mental or physical problems arose which could only be remedied by knowing his background. It was something Brad had said privately to Storm and Logan at the time Laris came to stay and they had first met the big feline.
"What do you recall of your world? Anything at all?" Logan asked.
*No, Laris has told me the tale of my finding, but from that time I remember nothing myself. Only cold and fear, loneliness, and hunger.*
"Laris?" Logan questioned. "What do you remember?"
"The circus was on Fremlyn. We'd set down only that evening. I'd cared for all the animals and I was walking around the edge of the port. It was the old port, so there was no real perimeter; it just ran out from plascrete into scrubby grass on the outside edge opposite the port buildings. It was full dark, but the stars were out and the two moons were up, so I could see well enough. It was quiet, too, so I was listening to the birds.
"I heard something crying. It sounded small, like a little animal in pain. I went looking and found Prauo. He was tiny then, about the size of a six-month-old Terran kitten. His markings were already there but very pale. Fawn and brown--not black and gold. He looked up at me and said his name."
Logan blinked, "What?"
"Prauo, he said. Prauo." Laris smiled as she imitated the chirping wail of a kitten imploring her for help.
"So that's why you called him that. Okay, go on."
"There's nothing more to tell. I took him back to the ship, fed him, looked after him, and Dedran said I could keep the beast if I wanted and he'd better turn out to be useful."
They all went silent for a period, remembering just how useful Prauo and Laris had proved to be to the circus boss who was also a member of the Thieves Guild. Dedran had coerced them both into industrial espionage, outright theft, and spying for him. It had only been with the death of Dedran and the authorities' dissolution of the circus that both Prauo and Laris had become truly free.
The horses walked on, Prauo pacing at their side. Logan nodded to him thoughtfully. "I think your intelligence is natural. None of the other nonhuman races are experimenting to produce intelligence."
"That we know about," Laris cut in.
"I'd suspect Terran Intelligence would know, and if they thought Prauo was the result of nonhuman experiments, someone would have said. Dad has contacts there. They said nothing and they do know about Prauo, so I don't think that's it. They keep a close eye on the Thieves Guild, too, and the human-settled worlds. No, I believe that Prauo came from a world whose inhabitants are intelligent."
Laris nodded. "So someone landed on that world and picked up a pet kitten, not knowing its people were--well--people."
"The question is, why would Prauo have been discarded?" They both turned to look down at Prauo. He looked back, considering the question.
*I recall feeling fear and perhaps--disgust. I was a cub, very young. It is possible the emotions I was registering were not my own.*
Laris gave a yelp. "Of course. Prauo, I didn't only hear you crying, I felt it. A kind of unhappiness, a plea for comfort. What if the person who stole you felt that, too, and became frightened?"
Logan grinned. "That'd probably do it. Someone steals a baby alien and it starts making the thief feel things in his head. I can see where that'd panic some idiot dumb enough to pick up a creature from another world and take it away. It likely activated the memory of every scary space story he'd ever heard. He wouldn't have been able to dump Prauo fast enough." He considered his theory and expanded on it.
"Okay, so you have the beast-master talent, Laris. You've never had training but the raw talent was there and you knew it, although at the time you didn't have a name for the ability. You already knew you could hear animals, so you didn't worry about hearing Prauo. But those without the talent are normally mind-deaf to anything. Prauo can make even the deaf hear if he wants to."
"No . . . ," Laris began.
"No, he couldn't. I just remembered, it was only that short time while he was so tiny. I heard him, but after that no one else could. It wasn't until his last two growth spurts that he could make other people hear what he said."
She remembered the last one. It had occurred after Dedran had died and after the Quades had taken them in. With that final change Prauo had grown yet again in size, and his ability to mind-send had become comprehensive, real conversations with others as well as with Laris. That had fascinated Brad Quade, Logan's father. He'd made inquiries again, but still they had discovered nothing of Prauo's possible origins.
*If I come from another world, it must be far away*--Prauo had been chasing his own mind-prey--*else your people would know of it, or hear rumors at least. So if I was stolen from there, how is it that no Terran appears to have heard even talk of some such place?*
Laris and Logan looked at each other. Prauo made sense there. So why was it that no one had heard of his world? Possible reasons popped up immediately.
Logan was thinking it out as he spoke: "A world which was illegal for landing for some reason. Or one which looked too dangerous to bother with officially . . ."
"Officially!" Laris said quickly. "What about the Thieves Guild?" Then she remembered various conversations at the circus and contradicted herself. "No, not them. I once overheard Dedran talking to Cregar. He said they'd sneaked samples from Prauo but they hadn't been able to clone anything with a mind."
Logan's voice was suddenly sharp. "With a mind? You mean the clones died as cubs?"
Laris tried to recall the words. "More that they were just animals and couldn't even seem to be trained very well, as if they had the instincts of animals but didn't build on them to learn anything. They'd grow to the size of a carra, then they'd die off slowly. As if they needed something which wasn't being provided. Maybe there's some food on Prauo's world they had to have at birth, or maybe their mother's milk for the first few weeks to provide antibodies or something."
"Maybe." He noticed they had almost reached the main ranch house. "But right now let's not tell Dad about my fall, okay? We'll mention the bull, though, in case he wants it run down and not just off our lands."
Laris nodded agreement. Then, noticing that the corral held a familiar mount--Destiny, Tani's three-quarter-bred duocorn--she grinned. "He'll have something else to think about, anyhow. Look, Destiny's here, which means Tani and Storm must be back."
Logan beamed. His older half-brother, Storm, married to Tani, with both of them mostly living now at the smaller Peaks ranch they owned jointly, were always welcome visitors.
"Race you?" Logan nudged his mount into a flying gallop for the corrals, forgetting the repaired saddle. Within the house Tani, Storm, and Logan's step-father, Brad Quade, heard the pounding hooves. They walked to the door just in time to see Logan part company with his saddle for the second time that day as the repairs gave way. Logan slid ungracefully over his mount's tail, landing still sitting on the saddle but with his legs stuck out in front of him. He rose, ruefully rubbing the seat of his pants.
Storm had neatly snagged the flying reins and now handed Logan's shying mount back with a bow.
"I think you lost something, younger brother."
"Yeah, my mind. I should have remembered that girth." He clasped his brother's shoulder affectionately. "How long are you here for?"
"Two or three days. Tani wants to talk to her aunt and uncle, and our com-caller won't reach off-planet. Brad's the one with the major transmitter." Behind them Tani and Laris were hugging each other.
Tani kept her voice low.
"Have you made up your mind about staying here for good yet?"
Laris's voice was equally soft, but more anxious. "I still don't know. Prauo likes Arzor--good hunting and lots of open land--but I'm used to moving on. The truth is, I think Logan isn't sure he wants to stay here for good, either. Oh, he loves working for the Agency, but that job isn't going to last forever. Not now that the Arzoran government has new Patrol-approved legislation in place which deals with a lot of the old problems between settlers and natives." She observed that the men were moving in their direction and whispered quickly to Tani, "Talk to you more later."
She turned, smiling at Brad. "Mr. Quade, did Logan tell you about the frawn bull we found?"
Brad Quade, wealthy Arzoran frawn rancher, member of one of the First-ship families, and something of a power on the planet, grinned like a boy at her. "Oh, he told me--all the boring bits. I've seen that saddle. I'll expect you to tell me the exciting stuff over dinner."
He hooked her arm in his and smiled down at the girl he genuinely liked; that she was Logan's choice met with his entire approval. It didn't hurt that she was a nice-looking child. Her cap of dark hair crowned a well-shaped head, while her dark brown eyes held a cautious warmth.
In fact, he considered he had two good-looking women in the family--if his son was smart enough to attach this one as his stepson had wed Tani. Storm's wife, Tani, was half-Cheyenne and had the looks of both the Indian and Irish races from which she came. Black hair from the Cheyenne, eyes of gray or green--according to her mood--from the Irish, as well as the fine bones and clear skin of the Celtic heritage. He smiled at them both, addressing Laris.
"I may have some more good news for you, my dear, once Tani has finished talking to her aunt and uncle."
He saw her interest and teased gently. "No, I'm telling you nothing yet. Wait until after Tani's made her call and we've eaten. Then we can talk."
Behind him Prauo sniffed silently and sent, *His news is good. He smells of approval. He is pleased to be able to tell you whatever it may be.*
*So long as it's good news,* Laris sent back, *I can wait for that.*
When they entered the house Tani promptly vanished. Her aunt should be calling from the Lereyne network com-caller any moment and she was eager to hear the news. It wasn't only that her aunt and uncle had raised her almost half her life. Their home--Ifana's Legacy, the huge old ex-merchant spaceship known all over human-settled planets as "the ark"--had been her home, and the genetic work which was done there had been her own occupation for years.
The ark and its staff heard things, often before--or even instead of--Terran Command, and sometimes in greater detail. Tani had asked Aunt Kady and Uncle Brion to collect any rumor which might apply to Prauo. The spacegram she'd received by retransmission from the main ranch two days ago had indicated her kin might have something to tell her on that subject.
She returned after having talked briefly in real-time. The information Kady had sent was contained in a high-speed transmission that Tani had left the machine to translate and download in print. It was only the ghost of a hint of a rumor, but it had possibilities. The question was, would anyone be able to follow it up?
Tani ate absentmindedly, and once the meal was over she vanished again, returning with her printout on the reusable plastic sheets. Brad sat back sipping swankee and waited for her to begin. Seeing his attention, the talk faded into silence as the others also waited.
Tani looked at Brad. "I think you have something for Laris first. Tell her, then I'll read my 'gram, all right?"
Brad nodded, turning to look at Laris. "I've been checking up on what I could find out about your family. You knew Cregar was your uncle?"
Laris swallowed. She'd discovered that only as Cregar lay dying--murdered as he'd tried to save Laris and some of the genetically-enhanced beasts belonging to Tani and Storm. Neither had known until that moment that Laris was the daughter of his beloved baby sister. There'd been just enough time for Storm to tell Cregar who he'd saved, to see him smile acknowledgment before taking a warrior trail into death's long night.
"Yes, but you said afterwards that all the others were dead." Her expression wavered between fear and hope.
Brad nodded slowly. "They are, I'm afraid. But some of your family, while not extremely rich by some standards, were reasonably well-off. They had an off-planet account and, more, they also owned a ship."
There was a startled gasp from around the table. Storm put that into words. "You mean a spaceship? What sort? How did it survive the war and who's had it until now?"
Brad grinned. He loved being the bearer of good news. "I do mean a spaceship. It's an old Garand, the sort smaller merchants often used, with those engines using anything for mass-conversion. The Garands aren't fast, but they cost little to run and they're reliable."
Everyone nodded at that, including Laris. The circus ship had been one of the Mega-Garand class, a far larger type, but similar in many ways. It was for its cheap running and reliability that Dedran had chosen it as circus transport. The Garand-class starships tended to last for generations; once built it was not uncommon for them to be still flying a hundred or more years later. So that over the generations there were huge numbers of them playing their trade between the human-settled worlds.
Brad was continuing. "It survived because Laris's family had leased it to a partner who was using it to long-haul supplies to troops at the far fringe of the war. The war ended, he returned, and we know what he found." They did. The Xik had killed all life on several worlds during the war; Laris's world had been one of them--as had Terra.
"The captain's partner's planet was dead. Some refugees had been evacuated, but no one knew where they'd gone and records were either unreliable or nonexistent. He must have been an honest man, though. He died recently and left the ship and half the monies owing to any member of the Trehannan family still living, if he or she could be found. And as he had no family himself, he left his own estate to be used to find them. Anything left from his estate after that search was to go to the Trehannan heir as well."
Storm was skeptical. "How long were the authorities to look?"
His step-father chuckled. "Forever, I guess. It all went into a trust with the interest being used to fund the search. Somewhere along the line someone tripped over my own checking on Laris. They contacted me last week, we talked, and I had a final confirming spacegram last night. I decided to wait until everyone was here." He turned to Tani. "Don't you have something to talk about as well before we get into how much Laris is inheriting?"
"I do," Tani started, "Aunt Kady was down in a bar on Trastor--" She was interrupted by hoots of amusement. The idea of Tani's scientist aunt roistering in a spaceport bar amused everyone at the table.
"Will you listen, you clowns! She was collecting one of the techies who'd had a bit too much to drink. The bar called the ship about him and Kady went to bring him back. She'd poured sober-up into him, dumped him in the fresher with a clean overall, and while she was waiting for him to clean up she overheard some old man rambling on. You know my aunt; she's interested in everything and she had nothing else to do, so she listened. She sent a high-speed squeal of what the man said. I'll read it to you."
Her first words drew incredulous gasps from everyone, so that all gazes were fixed on her now as she read on slowly and clearly.
Copyright 2006 by The Estate of Andre Norton and by Lyn McConchie
Excerpted from Beast Master's Quest
by Norton, Andre
Copyright © 2006 by Norton, Andre.
Excerpted by permission.
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