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From Inside the Flap
Chapter 1--First Encounter
A storm crackled and growled just beyond Baldur's Peak, its erratic flashes illuminating the brooding sky.
Linnea lounged, half-dreaming, on a grassy hillock above her peacefully browsing herd. This near the end of the day she was looking forward to a relaxing steam bath, followed by a leisurely meal and a quiet evening by the fire with her books and music. Far outside the normal traffic lanes, her quiet mountain aerie held nothing to attract wandering tourists.
Lazily, through half-opened eyes, she watched a strange shape overhead. Too large to be a bird, it had to be a flyer, a rare sight in her part of the world. Linnea reflected that it was probably headed for the Kingdom of Phasga's ski resorts far beyond the distant Dragons' Teeth Range and had gotten blown off course by the storm.
When the flyer abruptly disappeared on the other side of the peak, a crashing sound startled her awake. The shock of the impact reverberated across the meadow, splintering the afternoon’s drowsy silence and sending her abruptly panicked herd in a dozen different directions. Startled out of their own late-afternoon doze, the three guard dogs got to their feet, barking. Without waiting for her signal, they began circling the milling goats, rounding up fleeing strays, herding separated kids back to their dams and generally restoring order.
Linnea jumped to her feet in turn. After whistling up the dogs, she took Daegal, the herd’s curly-horned senior buck, by the ear and led him from the pasture and back toward the herd's sturdy stone-walled paddock. By the time she penned up the last of the goats, purple twilight was lengthening over the meadow. The coming dark would be moonless and she knew she'd better find the flyer's occupants fast--it was on nights like this the Barren wolves liked to run.
With a quick glance over her shoulder at the stone-colored clouds tumbling across the peak, Linnea headed into the hut with a sigh. Shucking her light sandals, shorts and loose silk shirt, she donned her quilted leggings and insulated top. Tucking her heavy braids into a leather cap, she laced up her felt-lined climbing boots and stamped her feet against the slate tiles. Then she took down a glow-light from the massive shelf above the drowsing ceramic stove and shook it into life.
Slinging the heavy emergency pack across her broad shoulders, she shrugged on her waterproof cloak. Then, closely followed by the three dogs, she headed out, carefully latching the ironbound door behind her. Striding across the meadow toward Baldur’s Peak, she sensed rather than saw her three massive guard-hounds running beside her, faithful noses at the ready and trusting her to tell them what was needed.
It would take them at least an hour to reach the site of the crash, she reflected.
At twenty, Linnea would never be accounted a beauty. Even among the Ursi, her looks were nothing special, but the power of her healing hands was second to none and her broad countenance and golden-brown eyes held a charm and gentleness lacking in her more aggressive sisters. At six-foot-three, she was small in comparison to her magnificent four-hundred-pound mother, Aase. Her relative puniness and homely looks notwithstanding, she?d find no lack of masculine attention at the upcoming autumn gathering. That her hair was midnight black rather than the much-prized red seemed to matter not a whit to her prospective suitors. In fact, just this past spring several neighboring males had sent messages to Aase that they found her youngest daughter’s freckled features and stocky frame most attractive. Mating and motherhood held little appeal for Linnea but her solitary summer in the upper pasture would soon be over and she couldn't put off the inevitable much longer
Always sure of a friendly welcome, a hearty meal and a comfortable sleeping pallet, itinerant peddlers often visited Aase’s great stone keep. Listening to their colorful tales, the enthralled Linnea had often imagined Seira’s far-flung lands, exotic peoples and glittering oceans. Yearning to taste the bustle and excitement of the exotic cities below her isolated mountain home, she'd picture the great interplanetary ships, dancing stars and cloudy galaxies of outer space, and something would tug at her insides. But her chances of ever leaving Aase’s mountain kingdom were almost nil.
Isolated by preference, the Ursi concentrated on their legendary herds, and by tradition their only outside contact was with those who came to them. Their huge goats? fabulous silken hair and the gourmet cheeses made from their sweet milk formed the basis of the Ursi’s incredible wealth. However, Linnea’s people never touched money or soiled their hands with financial transactions. Any traveling or trading was done on their behalf by trusted Seiran representatives, whom the Ursi would never demean by calling servants.
Much smaller in stature than their massive employers, the exuberant lowland men intrigued Linnea as much as they repelled her sisters. While she found their pale eyes and golden faces difficult to read, their ready wit and bold impudent ways amused her. To her regret, Seiran women avoided social contact outside their own kind. Veiled whenever they left their houses in the keep’s foreign compound, they kept strictly to themselves, and they and their silent children remained a mystery.
The mountain wind’s whipping howl and icy raindrops' spatter against her face brought Linnea back to the matter at hand. Raising the glow-light high above her head, she peered into the gathering gloom. Just as she set foot on the stony upward path she heard them, and the hair lifted at the back of her neck. The normally silent barren wolves? eerie song could mean only one thing.
They had found their prey.
Jesse de Raven adjusted his companion’s blanket then, favoring his injured leg, painfully inched back toward the fire.
Blown off-course by a freak storm and with no idea where he was, he?d had all he could do to fight the bucking winds that seemed to be doing their utmost to buffet the tiny flyer into oblivion. He?d been desperately punching the silent communicator trying to raise an answer when, literally out of nowhere, that damn mountain peak had reared in front of them like a finger pointing into the sky. By veering off at the last minute and shoving the flyer into a steep climb, he?d almost made it. "Almost" hadn?t been enough. Their small craft had fallen back just short of the peak, and only its elaborate buffer systems had saved them from being smashed to pieces when they?d hit.
With its landing gear wrecked and one engine almost torn off, it was unlikely the flyer could ever be repaired enough to get off the ground even if he had the means and personnel to do so.
Jesse tended to Perry as best he could. In the dimming light, he could see the older man’s gray pallor, and his shallow gasping breaths and the icy slickness of his skin spoke of internal injuries far beyond the emergency medical pack’s limited capabilities. Without outside help Perry wouldn?t last until morning and even with it...
Jesse tried not to think about it. Tossing another piece of wood on the fire, he reflected that the flyer’s remains furnished meager shelter and little protection against the steadily growing cold. Their pitifully small supply of fuel was dwindling and he could only pray the feeble blaze would last until morning.
What was that?
Glowing eyes looked out of the surrounding shadows and he sensed something circling. Large and unfriendly, its hunger was a living, palpable entity. More eyes. Padding feet. The swish of a tail. Soft snarling.
A keening howl echoing toward the sky almost took him out of his skin. As he reached for a brand from the fire Jesse’s grip tightened on his laser pistol, and he wished he'd brought a more conventional weapon. Had they been in one of Seira’s tropical jungles he would have. But in the mountains of Phasga? A bear or snow leopard were the expected predators here, and no matter what size such a beast might be, the laser pistol would have been quite adequate.
Ghosting silver out of the shadows, something leapt the fire and went straight for Perry, worrying and growling at his half-conscious body as more followed. Disregarding his injured leg and screaming curses, Jesse jumped across the intervening space.
He landed hard. Wielding the burning brand like a club he smashed Perry’s aggressor squarely on the nose and sent it squealing backward into its oncoming fellows. The laser pistol hissed, almost of its own volition, somersaulting a second snarling attacker in midair a fraction short of Jesse’s own throat. Without stopping to look and flailing torch and pistol in all directions, he whirled and prayed the laser would recharge in time, subconsciously counting the longest five seconds of his life.
Finally, there it was. A throb of green. He fired again and heard another squeal, but still they came. Frantic now, he scrambled, reaching for a new brand from the dying embers, and belatedly noticed the pain knifing up from his outraged leg as it collapsed under him. Rolling, he banged into the body of the flyer and heard a snap as jaws closed on empty air where his face had been a scant second before. Something closed on his arm with a crunch, tightening, and the brand dropped from his nerveless fingers. Again the laser hissed. Only four charges left, and the replacement cartridges on the flyer’s console might as well be a million miles away for all the good they were doing him now.
A gigantic shape roared out of the darkness, scattering the pack right and left like so much confetti. The newcomer swept the grumbling, snapping mass from Perry’s body with a single blow of its massive paw. In a matter of seconds it reduced the attackers to a bloody jellied pulp. Apparently satisfied, the beast reared up on its hind legs and looked around.
Weaponless now and barely able to see through the blood streaming down his face, Jesse was backed up against the flyer. Cursing and spitting like a cat, he fought off the ravening wolves with his bare fists.
Suddenly, they were gone.
A great furred head bent over him, blotting out the stars. Immense jaws opened with a rumbling growl and a rush of surprisingly sweet-scented breath. When a massive paw touched his head and the monster’s questing tongue rasped his bleeding face Jesse de Raven knew for a certainty that his last moment of life had come. Surrendering the final shred of his waning consciousness, he tumbled thankfully into the welcoming dark.
Cursing and growling deep in his throat, Jesse fought away whatever was touching his face. What was that damn monster doing, anyway? Tasting him first? He heard a gentle voice above him. Definitely female--pure music to his ears--the accent might be unfamiliar but the language was certainly his. "Hey! Hey! Hey! Just calm down for a minute. I?m only trying to help you."
His unseen rescuer lifted his arm and Jesse choked back a scream. "Sorry. But it’s hard telling with all of this blood... Mmm. It’s probably broken. Scanner says your leg is, too. I?ll just have to patch you up as best I can." Something pushed against his chest. "Here, give me your hand. What you?re feeling is a pressure bandage. Hold it there as tightly as you can. Good."
Jesse drew in a deep shuddering breath. "What about...?"
"Your friend? I?m sorry. I?ll put him in the flyer before we leave and come back and bury him tomorrow. Incidentally, your flight communicator’s busted. Not that it?d do you much good up here, anyway. Something to do with the atmospherics."
His rescuer chuckled in her throat. "Well, you can hardly stay up here, can you, little man? If the beasts don?t get you the cold most certainly will, and it’s unlikely anyone?ll be looking for you in this direction. If it?ll make you feel better, I?ll leave a message in the flyer. You must have been in some mother of a storm to get blown this far. You?re a skier, aren?t you?"
That last remark sounded to Jesse almost like an epithet. "Er, yes." Unable to say more, he started coughing, and something cold and slick mashed against his face--a mask of some sort. Whatever it was pumping felt good.
"This?ll help you breathe. Now, relax for a minute while I get you situated."
Almost before Jesse knew what was happening, he was lifted and set down again. Something soft enfolded him, a hand slipped something else under his head and straps tightened around his arms and legs. A cold nose touched his and a warm tongue began licking his upper face. Believing the beast had returned, he cried out, thrashing violently.
Firm hands pushed him down. "Hush, now. It’s only Sherpa. She’s a guard-hound, and if it weren?t for her and her two brothers here I wouldn?t have found you. Just as soon as I?ve gotten your friend’s body into the flyer we?ll be ready to go. We?ll have to hurry. I smell a storm coming and this one feels like snow."
Worried, Linnea eyed the clouds scudding across the moonless sky. The nights were never entirely dark at this time of year and she could make her way back across the peak blindfolded. But time was not on her side. Burdened with the inflated running sled, it would take her at least a couple of hours to reach the hut. The ride was going to be rough, especially in the dark, and judging by this youngster’s looks he might not survive it.
His chances would be even less if they remained here. Still hungry, the barren wolves would be back as soon as they?d regrouped, and other predators would be roaming the night. The snow leopard hunting a meal for her half-grown cubs, yipping coyotes always ready for easy pickings and the king of them all, her neighbor, Bry.
Bry was probably watching them right now. Territorial he might be, but he had his own concerns and wouldn?t bother the crash site as long as Linnea was here. At least, she hoped he wouldn?t. He?d be along the moment she left, and it was a certainty that no pack of barren wolves would ever challenge him.
Wrapping the older man's savaged remains in the tattered blanket, Linnea heaved him into the flyer’s cabin. With the door wedged firmly shut and the clear screens still intact, the body should be safe from scavengers.
With the exception of Bry, of course. The gigantic bear had little taste for human flesh, and curiosity would attract him to the site more than anything else. Shy like most of his kind, he led a solitary life for most of the year, preferring mountain berries and the abundant fish in the nearby lakes and streams. Well-fattened against the coming winter’s sleep, he?d be heading for the more hospitable valley within the month. Then, following his autumn sojourn, he would hole up in his comfortable quarters until spring.
Gathering the contents of the emergency pack Linnea snapped the clasp shut and hitched it across her shoulders once more. She strapped the sled’s harness around her chest. Raising the glow-light high above her head, she checked the crash site one last time. If their mother arrived soon enough, the snow leopard’s cubs would eat well tonight and the scavengers should take care of the rest.
During the bumpy trip across the peak, Jesse drifted in and out of consciousness, not always sure where he was. Recalling how his grandfather had been against this trip, he thought bitterly, I should have listened to him.
The old man had been complaining lately of not feeling well, and the day Jesse left for Seira he?d been even grumpier than usual. When you were ninety-three, that was to be expected, Jesse supposed. He was fond of his still-formidable grandfather, and had the trip been for anything other than Seira’s prestigious Invitational Winter Cup he might have hesitated to go.
At twenty-one, Jesse was his team’s best and brightest hope for the downhill racing championship, and he had been training for this event for as far back as he could remember. Since he was barely old enough to walk, in fact. Challenged by the best the InterPlanetary Synod had to offer, he would never again be as good as he was now, and, despite his grandfather’s objections, he?d come to measure himself against his peers with the entire Nublian Empire’s blessing.
Like his forebears, flying was in Jesse’s blood. A skillful pilot, he?d earned extra pocket money during his teen years operating shuttles for Nublis's imperial fleet, and it hadn?t occurred to him not to bring the sleek private craft he?d scrimped and saved to buy for so long. Used to his native planet’s rugged backcountry, he hadn?t expected Seira’s mountains to be any different. He?d seen pictures, but he'd never imagined anything on the order of Phasga’s towering ranges. Soaring into infinity, the northern kingdom’s cloud-wreathed peaks had no equal when it came to sheer magnificence. Compared to his native planet’s they were as an elephant might be to a mouse.
When he?d taken off with Perry from Seira’s crowded spaceport that morning the sun was shining and the sky was radiant and clear in all directions. The computer chart was plain enough and they?d been dead on course according to their beacon. But once they crossed into Phasga’s airspace the mountain ranges had gone on and on, each one looking exactly like the last. Then that freak storm had come up out of nowhere.
Snug in his soft blanket, Jesse was warm enough. The sleet’s icy needles stung his exposed forehead as he listened to the wind’s howl, and he wondered where his still-unseen rescuer was taking him.
The sled’s angle suddenly changed, breaking into his half-doze. He gave a sharp exclamation and one of the dogs yipped. His right side hit something with a sharp thump, then he felt himself swinging back. Swinging? What was going on here, anyway?
Trussed like a mummy and unable to see, Jesse could only imagine where he was. Thinking himself suspended in midair over some bottomless abyss, he felt his heart go straight into his throat and stay there. With his mouth drier than a desert, he couldn?t have said anything at that moment if his life depended on it; and he could only pray the lady had enough strength to haul him back. Mercifully, he faded out again.
Had she thought of it, Linnea would have assured Jesse he was in no danger. In the trickiest part of the climb she was preoccupied with lowering each of the dogs down Baldur’s sheer face after the sled reached bottom, then getting down herself. She'd originally planned to take the long way back, but the storm’s first snowflakes were already swirling and melting against her face. The safer, more level path would add at least another hour to an already arduous journey and rappelling down Baldur’s face took only a few minutes.
Even with the shorter route she wasn?t sure her patient would last until they reached the hut. He hadn?t made a sound in some time, and as she trudged along beneath the stars she felt the sands of his life running out. Whether from shock or loss of blood, his breathing had grown increasingly labored and his color didn?t look good. A gory testament to the barren wolves? savagery and razor-sharp teeth, that chest wound had gone deep. It alone could prove mortal and was far from being the young man’s only injury.
"Hang on," she muttered, almost to herself. The hut’s welcome shape loomed on the other side of the meadow and she quickened her pace.
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