tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Third Ring

The Third Ring

byNotWise©

The author would like to thank moncrief_the_advocate for insightful input.

*****

The Third Ring

Urta was a verdant planet, but its most common proteins were toxic to humans. Colonists were genetically altered so they and their descendants could thrive on Urta's native bounty. The scientists and engineers were supposed to be temporary residents on Urta. They were unaltered and survived there only because of the antidote they took every day.

Then came The Collapse. Communications with Earth ceased and the great ships came no more. The engineers and scientists knew that they would live only as long as their supply of antidote lasted, so they committed their remaining time to one purpose. They gave the colonists the knowledge and tools to sustain their culture. Then they were gone.


*****

Forgive me, for I am but a simple teller of ancient tales. I'm old now and modern life passes me by. I study the old texts so that on long winter nights like this I might relate them to you. Hush now that I may speak.

There was a time on Urta when heroes walked among men. In those old days Urta had but two rings, and they were both yellow. The third ring—the blue ring—was built of love. Tales of those times have long been forbidden by the believers in Rational Order, because it is love that they most fear.

Tannehill was a great hero, and our stories of him could fill a month of winter nights. They say that he lived where the First Village touched the forest of Singing Trees, and his home was forever graced by the little lights—the spirits of the forest and the sky. He was a young, broad-shouldered man, and a man of many means. The unmarried women of the village wanted him.

"What am I supposed to do?" Tannehill asked. He paced in front of his house with one of the forest's little lights perched unnoticed on his shoulder and gestured to the old woman who sat by the door.

She was Doctor, who would be the last of the heroes. It was Doctor whose journals contain the stories I tell.

"The girls aren't coy about what they want," Tannehill said. "I have constant attention; I can't walk to the market without being touched. I find gifts waiting here almost every day when I come home. They leave notes that say things like, 'If you like this then you'll love my other gifts.' It makes it hard for me to get my work done."

Doctor chuckled and said, "Most men would envy you. Don't you have sex with the colonists?"

"No," Tannehill said, then corrected himself. "I did at first, with the girls that worked at Planetary Station before we lost contact, but things are different now." He stopped in front of Doctor and said, "I think I need a wife to keep the girls away and to help me here. I don't have time to do all the things I need to get done."

Doctor sat back in her chair and watched as Tannehill went back to pacing. She said, "We'll only be here for a few more years. They know that, right? Do they also know that you can't give them children?"

"They know we won't be here," Tannehill said. "I impress that on them every day. They need to learn everything we can teach them and I think they understand."

He stopped his pacing again and turned to Doctor to say, "I'm not sure they understand the genetic problem. Some of them tell me they'll give me babies, but we're 100% incompatible, right?"

Doctor nodded and said. "Almost. Because of the colonists' engineered genetics, their immune systems should reject any ovum that you fertilize; it shouldn't implant. There have been a few instances of unaltered men getting colonists pregnant and the outcomes weren't good for the woman or for the fetus."

"I don't want anything like that to happen," Tannehill said. "I know I'll leave a wife behind, but I want to leave her rich and healthy."

Doctor shrugged and told him, "We have a simple blood test. Politics among the colonists might be a bigger problem. Their marriages aren't usually romantic affairs. They're arranged contracts between a man and the woman's family; the family agrees to let the man have her under the condition that he supports her. It's then her duty to keep his home. From what you've said it sounds like there'll be a lot of competition for that contract. If people feel cheated, then it could be hell for your new wife."

Tannehill shook his head and asked, "How do I give them all a chance and still give myself any chance of finding one good woman?"

"It might not be as challenging as you think," Doctor said. She reached out with a thin hand and plucked at Tannehill's tunic. His clothes were shabby and worn from neglect. "You've been too busy to take care of yourself. Give them a test. Narrow your list down to women who can take care of you."

Doctor studied him once more and asked, "What keeps you so busy?"

"I teach every day," Tannehill said. "I want them to know how and why things work, and how to make the tools they'll need when we're gone." He glanced at the light on his shoulder and to the village to see if anyone was about to interrupt them. "And one more thing. Let me show you."

He led Doctor into his house, which was more a workshop than a home. The air was warmed and filled with the hum of machines that cluttered every available space, and tools rested in the corners and on shelves.

Doctor glanced around and laughed then told him, "You're a long way from being ready for a wife. You need to give her at least a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen, not just a cot in a workshop."

Tannehill gave Doctor an embarrassed shrug. "I guess I really haven't thought that far," he said. He touched a small device to make a drawer slide open and told her "I've become almost obsessed by this." He removed a circular plate from the drawer, placed it under a scope, and its magnified image appeared in the air above his work bench.

Doctor caught her breath. The image showed the surface of a bright blue metallic foil etched with an intricate, crystalline pattern. "What is that?" she asked.

"I call it 'the blue metal' for lack of a real name," Tannehill said. "It looks and acts like a metal, but I extracted it from leaf litter on the forest floor and I'm not sure what it is. I tested a lot of different tissues and detected it in every one—at least in small amounts."

"You should present this at our next conference," Doctor said. "Is it good for anything?"

"I'm not sure yet," Tannehill said. He turned off the scope, slipped a finger under the light on his shoulder and guided it to the edge of the foil.

The little light flared and other lights blinked on around them. Doctor snapped her head about as they appeared, and Tannehill touched her shoulder to reassure her. "The blue metal might work like an antenna that my little friend here just used it to call his friends. I don't know yet whether that's true, and I'm a long way from knowing how."

Of course, Tannehill only got the blue metal in the small amounts he could refine in his own home. There were few people in the time of heroes and they didn't have the cities or the industry that we have now. They prospered through community and craft.

Among the young women the crafts of weaving, of decorating fabric, and of sewing clothes were prized. People believed that a woman who mastered those crafts could certainly take care of a husband, so when Tannehill chose a single test to select a wife, he chose to test her weaving.

Tannehill spoke to the family councils when they gathered in the square and announced his decision. "A week from today," Tannehill said, "I will select a wife from among your best weavers. On that day send your eligible daughters to me with samples of their finest fabrics."

Imagine the frenzy that caused among the unmarried women! They selected the best ripened fiber pods to spin into thread, and worked night and day to produce their finest cloth.

Kylie wanted Tannehill as much as the others, but she was not one of the workers. Since she was young, Kylie found ways to get what she wanted without work. You may know people like her. She lied and cheated, and got what she wanted on the strength of other people's labor. No-one who knew her trusted her.

"Why should I worry?" Kylie asked her older sister. "We all know that you're the best weaver here. I hid your finest cloth where you won't find it, and tomorrow I'll take that to Tannehill."

Keren was everything that Kylie was not, and she was loved by those who knew her. She rolled her eyes at her little sister and said, "You can only tell me that because our mother can't stand to think that you are who you are. If I showed you to be a lying thief, it would be like stabbing her in the heart."

"Odd, isn't it?" Kylie asked, "How Mom's weakness always works out in my favor? You take her to the station for a week so Doctor can treat her, and look! Now I have your best cloth and you can't show Tannehill anything but your second best."

Keren wasn't as worried as you might think. Her second-best was better than anything but her best, and it was already sewn into a beautifully decorated tunic. She would wear the tunic to show her work to Tannehill.

Weeks passed from the time Doctor pointed out that Tannehill's house wasn't ready for a wife. As you might think, Tannehill used that time well. His home had two new rooms when the girls lined up at his door with their samples in hand. The new rooms were for the tools and machines that cluttered his house, but they hadn't been moved yet.

That was part of Tannehill's plan. What the girls saw when they stepped one at a time into his house was not the home of a wealthy man like they expected, but the same workshop that Doctor saw. He measured each girl's response by the direction her eyes went and the expression on her face—surprise or disappointment, concern or disgust.

Tannehill examined their samples, made notes to himself and sent them away. They stepped from the house confused and uncertain—except for Kylie, of course.

"He chose me!" Kylie announced to the girls in line behind her, and then laughed at their expressions. The ones who knew her were sure it was a lie. Had Keren been there she could have told the rest of them, but Keren was home where their mother had become confused and needed her help.

"Mom is having a bad day," Keren told Kylie when she came back from Tannehill's house. "Can you help me calm her down? I need to go to Tannehill's, too."

"Help you? No!" Kylie answered. "I've been on my feet with that mob all morning. Now I need food and a nap."

It was after noon before Keren could get their mother to sleep. Keren bathed herself, brushed out her long hair, and tucked a fragrant flower behind her ear. She dressed in her finely decorated tunic, and walked to Tannehill's home at the edge of the village. The others were gone and Keren was met there by the little spirits of the forest and the sky.

When Tannehill answered Keren's call at his door he found her with a halo of lights about her head and shoulders, but without a bit of fabric in her hands. He was charmed, but he had hoped he was done with his interviews.

"What's your name?" he asked and watched the expression on her face while he motioned her through the door. Keren's eyes were on him alone, as if only he mattered, and her expression was more curious than anything.

"I am Keren," she said.

Tannehill closed the door behind her then asked, "Keren, did you bring a sample of your weaving?" She plucked at her tunic without saying a word and Tannehill rolled his eyes. "No-one else came wearing their sample. You'll need to take it off so I can examine it."

Keren blushed and her halo of little lights danced about her as she stepped back. She signaled Tannehill with a twirl of her finger, and asked "Can you turn around, please?"

He was surprised. Most of the girls used any ploy to get his attention, and he was tired of their immodesty. He turned around without saying a word and waited until Keren laid the tunic over his shoulder. She said, "I'm sorry, but it's really only my second-best work."

The fine cloth slipped through Tannehill's fingers when he took it off his shoulder. He snatched it from the air before it reached the floor. "This won't take long," he said with his back to Keren. He arranged it on his scope and inhaled the warm, pleasing scent that rose from it.

The enlarged image appeared in the air above the workbench, and Tannehill stepped back to study it. He took up his notes and said, as if no-one were listening, "There was another sample that looked almost like this."

Keren stood close behind Tannehill's shoulder and broke his concentration when she said, "If you're talking about Kylie's sample, then it looks like mine because I made it, too."

Tannehill groaned aloud and spun around without thinking. Keren squeaked and jerked her hands to her shoulders so that her arms covered her breasts. Her halo of lights seemed as alarmed as Keren, and they flashed for a bright instant. "Sorry!" he said and turned away again. "I've never wanted to get in that kind of argument. She said, I said... and can anything be proven?"

Keren thought for a moment, then stepped close behind Tannehill. She touched her left hand to his shoulder and held her right hand out around him so he could see it. "If a time comes when you need proof then this is it. I have the callouses of a spinner and a weaver. Kylie doesn't."

"I'll remember that," Tannehill said. With Keren so close he realized that the pleasant scent he detected in her tunic was her scent. He swept Keren's sample off his workbench, offered it to her and waited before he turned around.

There was a rustle of soft fabric, he heard Keren's long hair fall against her back, and she said, "I'm decent now." She paused while Tannehill turned around and added, "I'm sorry I made that so awkward. I guess I didn't think before I decided to wear my sample."

"Perhaps I should thank you." Tannehill said with a smile, and gentle Keren blushed.

Days passed while Tannehill weighed his choices, and in that time he brought laborers to his home. They moved his workshop to his new rooms and brought in chairs and a new table and—most interesting to the gossips—a new bed. He would have a house ready for a wife.

Rumors of who his wife might be were on everyone's lips. Only Tannehill and Doctor knew that it was Kylie who won the contest, but Keren who haunted his dreams.

Now in those times a man might take as many wives as he could support, and Tannehill could support several. "You don't have to choose between them," Doctor reminded him. "You can have both sisters."

"I don't want to leave two widows," Tannehill said, "And I want Keren."

"I know them both," Doctor said. "If you choose Keren over Kylie then your reason will have to stand in court; Kylie will make sure of that."

"Keren gave me the evidence I need." Tannehill said, and related to Doctor what she told him.

Doctor clenched then relaxed her jaw and said, "The whole village is buzzing with rumors. Announce to the family councils that you want Kylie and Keren, but that I must examine them first. Send them to me here. I'll test their blood and give them a basic examination—including their callouses. If Kylie turns out to be a fraud then you can propose to Keren and leave Kylie out. You'll have the evidence and the colonists' court won't question you—no matter how loudly Kylie whines."

No-one was surprised that Tannehill chose Keren. Her cloth sold for the highest prices and the gifts she gave were prized. But why would he chose Kylie? A cry of injustice rose from the family councils. They had been cheated!

It was late in the afternoon when the sisters made their way to Tannehill's house. "He'll keep me to warm his bed," Kylie said, "and you'll do our chores." She cupped her hands under her full breasts and taunted her sister. "Men want what I'm good for, and it isn't housework."

Keren knew better, but the idea of making Tannehill's household with Kylie sickened her. If that was his proposal, then she would refuse him just as she had refused all of her earlier suitors.

Doctor waited outside Tannehill's house, and when Keren and Kylie arrived she called Tannehill out. "I'll examine Keren first," she told him. "Wait here. Give us privacy."

Kylie pursued Tannehill while they waited. She told him about all the pleasures she would give him when she became his wife, even as Tannehill tried to keep her an arm's length away. She claimed in a loud voice that Keren would give him none of those pleasures.

Tannehill was relieved when Doctor brought Keren back and took Kylie away. He walked with Keren in the light of the two great rings while the little lights gathered around her. Tannehill courted Keren with imagined tales of the times they would share if she were his wife. Keren listened but she always stayed a step away, and Tannehill feared that there was some dark tale that Keren would not tell.

Doctor returned with Kylie when they were done, and in the growing darkness she announced, "They both passed the blood test." Kylie squealed with delight and her raucous noise made Keren's halo of lights scatter back into the forest.

Keren's face fell because the moment when she would have to turn Tannehill away was getting closer. Maybe it was because her eyes were lowered that Keren didn't see Doctor lean to Tannehill's ear, or hear her whisper, "Kylie is no weaver. Her sample was Keren's."

Tannehill tossed away his worry about what Keren wouldn't say. He turned to her with a smile that lit the night and took both of her hands in his so she couldn't back away. "Keren," Tannehill asked, "I would be your husband and care for you as long as I live, if you will be my wife—my only wife."

Keren's snapped her eyes up to Tannehill's face and to tried to grasp what he meant. Behind him Kylie screamed "What? No! You mean me!"

Doctor shushed Kylie while Keren searched for words that just moments before she thought would never be hers. In that brief quiet the lights from the forest returned to gather around Tannehill and Keren as if to watch and listen. "I will be your only wife," she said, "And I will care for you and your household as long as we both live."

And so it was that Tannehill took Keren to be his wife.

As you might imagine, Kylie was consumed by envy. She stayed in her mother's darkened home even while First Village celebrated Keren's wedding. She didn't dance by the bonfires, or sing the songs, or call out crude jokes as Tannehill carried his new wife to their wedding bed.

As I told you at the start, our stories from the age of heroes came from Doctor's journals. We've long wondered how the next part of the story came to be. Perhaps Keren confided such details to Doctor, or maybe it was Tannehill, or maybe the facts have been embellished. Unless some new document comes to light we will never know for sure.

As was their custom, the village celebrated for three days, but the last two days were without the bride and groom. Keren laughed and kicked her feet when Tannehill swept her up on their wedding night and carried her home, but when he stood her beside their bed she was quiet and nervous.

Tannehill studied Keren's perfect symmetry: her dark eyes that opened wide to watch him, the fine lines of her nose, and her soft lips. "You're the most beautiful woman in all the world," he whispered. He lifted her hands and stepped back to study his wife. Her ceremonial gown was meant to tempt; it fit about her breasts, clung to her waist, and fell from her hips in soft folds. "And the one I most desire," he added.

Keren held her breath while her husband stepped close. He lifted her chin and bent to kiss her forehead, her ears, and her lips. She rose in his arms and met his tongue with hers, and when they fell out of their embrace again Keren's expression of wonder was replaced with one of aroused desire. Both of them panted with excitement.

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