A falling star! What luck!
Adara the Huntress froze in place, watching as a thin white line with a heart of fire grew into a wider streak that rushed earthward at an incredible speed. She frowned thoughtfully.
It must be huge to be visible in daylight.
The moment the streak vanished below the tree line, the ground trembled. A crashing louder than any thunder caused Adara to press her hands protectively over her ears. In the glade around her, spring pale leaves shook and dry needles showered from the evergreens.
Immediately, Adara sent out a mental cry. Sand Shadow had been ranging near where the star must have hit. The puma should be unharmed—Adara would have felt its death or pain.
Sand Shadow, did you see where it fell?
The image that came in response placed the puma atop a cluster of boulders, looking down where dust and steam fountained up from a narrow ravine. The puma had not yet mastered the art of linking her senses to those of her partner, but Adara received the impression that something smelled very bad—acrid and bitter, like nothing in nature.
Wait for me.
Adara’s thought was a suggestion, not a command. Though the untutored took comfort in the idea that hunters commanded their demiurges, the truth was that who commanded whom was more a matter of the personalities involved than of any automatic superiority of human over beast.
However, although Sand Shadow would be the first to assert she took orders from no one, Adara sensed that this time the puma was content to watch and wait.
I’ll be there as soon as I can, Adara promised, not so much in words as with an image of her booted feet carrying her closer to the rising column that marked the star’s grave.
As Adara raced to join Sand Shadow, she speculated as to what they might find. Certainly something that had struck down with such force would not have been melted to nothing by the heat of its passage. That meant there would be a treasure to retrieve.
Best would be one of those pieces of iron ore the smiths valued. Next best would be one of those strange things the seegnur had left swirling in the currents of the sky. These curiosities weren’t as useful as iron, nor as valuable, but Bruin knew those who collected such artifacts. Even if Bruin could not trade an artifact for as much as he could for iron, Adara’s find would gather favors for them both.
Adara loved her mentor and knew he would be pleased if she found an artifact. She was considering how favors might be more valuable than goods when she felt a flash of astonishment from Sand Shadow. The puma focused hard, carefully shaping a new image. Adara gasped and redoubled her pace.
Down in the dust and steam, something was moving.
* * *
He hadn’t meant to crash the shuttle. That was Griffin Dane’s first thought upon coming to, hanging upside down in his restraining harness with his pulse thundering in his ears.
His second thought was that his first had been incredibly stupid. No one ever meant to crash. Crashes by definition were unintended. His third thought, how he supposed that in some cases a crash might be intended—as in certain sports or forms of combat—died half-formed as Griffin became aware that the thudding noise in his ears was not solely his pulse.
A grinding, grating sound mingled with the thudding. Those sounds almost certainly meant that—despite the force with which the shuttle had impacted terra firma—Griffin’s ship was sliding. Sliding probably did not mean anything good either for him or for the ship and its irreplaceable contents.
With efficiency born of frequent and meticulous practice, Griffin set about getting himself out of the crash harness. The shuttle had landed top down. Griffin flipped over so he could walk on the ceiling-turned-floor. Even though he landed lightly, he felt the shuttle slide in response to the shift in balance.
Unstable, Griffin thought. Still, if I move slowly, I can grab some supplies. There’s an emergency kit in the locker near the exit hatch. I’d better get my excursion pack, too …
He moved, first stepping, then—when even that small motion started the shuttle jolting along again—lowering himself so that he could slide on the decking. Sweat stood out on Griffin’s forehead by the time he reached the exit hatch. When he tapped the release on the locker, nothing happened. Next he tried the airlock. Nothing.
Nothing, that is, except another of those sickening surges of motion and a sound like hail falling. Claustrophobia—a ridiculous sensation for a starship pilot—hit Griffin.
If I don’t get out of here fast, I’m going to be buried alive. Equipment won’t do me any good then. Out first. Gear later.
The airlock was equipped with a manual override. Frowning when each jerk of the lever jolted the shuttle, Griffin forced the heavy levers through their prescribed patterns. He’d been worried something like this power outage might happen, but he hadn’t thought it would occur so soon.
Maybe I didn’t crash the ship after all, he thought. Maybe it was crashed for me. Still, I thought I had the shuttle systems sealed. I followed the protocols … Maybe what happened was just an accident.
Focused as he was on these unsettling speculations, Griffin could hardly believe what he saw when he finally slid the airlock door open.
An enormous tawny lion crouched on a steep, crumbling talus slope only a short distance from the shuttle. When the wild cat saw Griffin, its fanged mouth opened in a snarl, its dark-tipped tail lashed, and its shoulders tensed to spring.
* * *
A human male! Sand Shadow was too flustered to send more than the most minimal image. Within the fallen star!
Adara put on a burst of speed and arrived at the same rocks upon which the puma had stood moments before. She looked down. The stranger remained crouched within an opening in the surface of his strange vessel—for vessel it must be.
His eyes, which he held fixed on Sand Shadow, were wide and well made, their color a warm brown. His hair, which was mussed and cut much shorter than that of any man of Adara’s acquaintance, was golden fair with darker undertones. His skin looked as if it never saw the sun.
He’s afraid of you, Adara reproved Sand Shadow, and felt the puma’s pride that this was as it should be. Yes. At most times I would agree most heartily, but this time … That thing is sliding on the talus, sliding more with every motion the man makes. If the man does not get out soon, he will be carried with it. I do not think he will live if he does.
Sand Shadow acknowledged the sense of this. With a flick of her long, heavy tail and a frolic of her hindquarters, she bounded away. The man stared after the puma, obviously eager to escape, but afraid lest any movement on his part bring the great cat back.
Adara called out to the stranger, pitching her voice so that it would carry, but hopefully not frighten the man.
“Hold still! I’m going to throw you a line.”
* * *
At the sound of the voice, Griffin started, causing the shuttle to jolt downward, jarring against something and jamming to a halt. He heard footsteps crunching on the gravel slope above him. A piece of rope snaked down and landed near him. Then the footsteps retreated.
“The rope’s anchored to a tree,” a confident, female voice said. The words were spoken with an accent like but not identical to that in the induced language lessons Griffin had brainloaded in preparation for this trip.
Leaning out from the shuttle, Griffin grabbed hold of the rope. Even that controlled motion proved to be a mistake. The precariously balanced vessel broke loose from whatever it had been resting upon, then began to plummet downward. Hands tight around the rope, Griffin was jerked free from the vessel, then smashed flat onto his face. Despite the red flash of pain, he kept a tight grip on what had become his lifeline.
The landslide poured over Griffin, scouring his exposed skin, blinding and half-smothering him, causing him to gasp and wheeze as he struggled against being carried away by the terrible stream that flowed over him.
The cascade was beginning to subside to a trickle when Griffin became aware that the rope was pulling from his fingers, burning the tender skin of his palms. Almost too late, he realized that his yet unseen rescuer was attempting to haul him up. Although his palms were raw and his fingers ached, Griffin clamped down and felt the rope tighten in reply.
A muffled cry of exultation rewarded his effort. The pulling became stronger. Inch by inch, Griffin was hauled from beneath the earthy debris. When his head broke the surface, he gasped for air. What he drew into his lungs was so full of dust and grit that he choked and coughed, but it was air.
The accented voice spoke again. “Hold tight. We’re going to start pulling again.”
Although his tortured hands protested, Griffin did as he was told. He was aware that any attempt on his part to kick or roll might restart the landslide. Even this slow tugging caused pebbles to trickle by, their rattle and hiss sounding like the warning of a venomous serpent.
When at long last the ground beneath him was stable, Griffin rolled to his feet. He was bruised all over and bleeding in several places. Nonetheless, he refused to give even the slightest wince. Although he was the odd scholar in a family of warriors, still he was a Dane of Sierra and he had his pride.
A Dane of Sierra who will need a miracle or two if he is ever to see Sierra again. Still, who ever said pride was a reasonable thing?
As soon as Griffin was certain his footing was secure, he located his rescuer. She stood beneath the trees higher up the slope, the rope that had saved him still caught in her hands. Griffin had expected a woman—the voice had told him that much—but he had not expected a woman anything like this one.
She was tall—perhaps a hand’s breadth shorter than he was, and he was counted a tall man. Her hair was the shining iridescent black of a raven’s wing, her eyes a deep amber gold. Both went well with skin tanned golden brown. She was attired in soft leather trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. Her feet were booted.
This woman was not lovely in the soft, drawing-room fashion Griffin had been taught to admire at the university, but was slimly elegant in the manner of one of those handmade knives his brother Siegfried collected.
Griffin thought his rescuer must be as deadly as a blade as well. At her waist was sheathed a hunting knife. Over one shoulder she wore a quiver holding grey-and-white-fletched arrows. Near to hand was the hunting bow that fired those arrows. She studied him quizzically, then began coiling her rope.
“Are you a seegnur?” she asked in her oddly accented Imperial. “I think you must be, for I have never seen a vessel like the one that you came from. Yet, there are tales of such vessels in the lore.”
Griffin considered. Her words held an archaic flavor, but he could understand most, all but the most crucial. What was a “seegnur”? It was not included in his language induction vocabulary. He decided on a partial answer.
“My name is Griffin Dane. I am very grateful for your aid. Without it, I fear I would now be dead.”
“Quite likely,” the woman agreed with dry practicality. “Your boat—I think that was some manner of boat?—is quite wrecked, yet I think it is made of harder stuff than flesh.”
“Wrecked?” Griffin repeated in disbelief.
He labored uphill so that he could see into the ravine. The shuttle had continued its slide in a nose-first, upside-down fashion. All but the stern was buried beneath a considerable amount of sand, gravel, and rock. A few trees, ripped from their roots by the force of the landslide, poked out of the debris, mute witnesses to the violence of the event.
“Well,” he said, “I’m certainly not getting it out of there.”
“Now that your vessel is broken, will you fly away then?” the woman asked. “The lore says the seegnur could fly.”
“I’m not sure what a ‘seegnur’ is,” Griffin admitted, “but if I am one, I certainly cannot fly.”
“Not all the seegnur could,” the woman said, and Griffin realized her words were meant to be comforting.
He forced himself to look away from the wreck of his shuttle. The woman had seated herself on a rocky outcropping large enough that the mountain itself would need fall away before it went anywhere. The puma had reappeared and was resting its head in her lap. Griffin estimated that the creature was something like nine feet long from nose tip to tail tip, a formidable animal indeed. He also noticed that it wore a series of copper hoop earrings in one rounded ear.
“You are Griffin Dane,” the woman said. “I am Adara the Huntress. This is Sand Shadow. She apologizes for frightening you before, but she did not expect the shell of your vessel to open in that manner.”
The way in which Adara said “the huntress” made quite clear this was a title, not a merely a professional designation. Here was someone who, at least in her own assessment, was a person of importance. Griffin bowed slightly from the waist, rope-burned hands pressed against his thighs.
“I am pleased to meet you,” he said. He noticed the puma’s ears flickering back and added quickly, “And Sand Shadow as well.”
The puma’s eyes narrowed, but in the relaxed manner of a cat well pleased rather than in annoyance.
Does she understand me then? Griffin thought. I remember tales that some of the animals on Artemis were genetically engineered so that they might provide a greater challenge. Could this be one of their descendants?
He longed to ask but decided against it, at least not until he knew these two better. They were his only hope of survival and he dared not offend them.
“Adara the Huntress,” Griffin said, “my ship may indeed be wrecked, but I believe I can get back inside it and retrieve a few things that would be useful. I already owe you my life. May I impose upon you for further assistance?”
Adara looked at him and her dark amber eyes crinkled in a smile of appreciation.
“You speak very prettily, seegnur,” she said, “but I think both courtesy and request come from the heart. We will help you. Let us wait to make certain the landslide is well and truly ended. Meanwhile, I can take you to a stream that runs with clean water and offer a cut from a somewhat lean but still quite tasty haunch of venison.”
“I will accept your kind hospitality, lady.”
Feeling the ache of his stiffening muscles, Griffin toiled up the slope to join his rescuer. Then he followed Adara and Sand Shadow a short way to where a south-facing hollow sheltered a pocket-sized mountain meadow. The promised stream splashed and gurgled along one edge, pooling at the lowest point before overflowing and continuing its way down.
“I will fetch the venison,” Adara said. “Sand Shadow will guard you while you bathe, lest some wandering creature decide you may be edible after the dirt comes off.”
She chuckled as she vanished into the shadowed pines. The puma settled into a sunny patch of thick grass and yawned, once again displaying a magnificent array of fangs.
Griffin contemplated the pool. Although the sun was pleasantly warm, he knew that this high up the water would be very, very cold. However, there was no avoiding this bath. He was filthy, and Adara the Huntress did not look like someone who would respect a request for heated bath water.
Though in the days of old, he speculated as he peeled off his coverall, certainly hot springs or such would have been available. The Imperials—I wonder if that is what Adara means by “seegnur”—liked their comforts. Of course, if the springs were artificially heated, they would now run cold.
Griffin thought of his shuttle as he had last seen it, mostly buried beneath dirt and rock. If he could get into it, he could retrieve a comm unit and contact his orbiting ship, but what if he couldn’t get in? As Griffin stepped into the stream, the cold water was not the only thing that made him shiver.
* * *
When Adara returned, she found Griffin Dane much cleaner, although his hair was still dripping wet and his lips were blue with cold. For the first time, she got a good look at his attire unsmudged by debris. This proved to be a one-piece garment, colored two-toned green. Although it had been through a landslide, it showed not a single rip or tear, nor even as particularly dirty.
More evidence, she thought to herself, that Griffin Dane is a seegnur, even though he does not seem to know the word.
The twitch of Sand Shadow’s ears and flick of her tail told Adara that the puma had found the man’s bathing quite amusing. Images of Griffin combined with those of a fluffed and splashing robin showed the determined fashion with which the man had tackled the icy plunge.
Adara chuffed at the cat. You might have offered to dry him.
He would have died of fright.
Adara considered, then thought apologies. You’re right. She turned to Griffin Dane.
“I have a towel you can use to dry your hair,” she offered. “I’ll make a fire. Sand Shadow should have done so, seeing how cold you are.”
Griffin Dane accepted the cloth gratefully and immediately began to tousle the darkened gold of his wet curls.
“Sand Shadow should have made a fire?” He looked about for the puma.
“She has gone to get some wood,” Adara said, scraping the ground clear and arranging a circle of river rock around it. Next she used flint and steel to strike sparks into the dry pine punk she shook from a small bag on her belt. “Something she could have done before. Like all cats, Sand Shadow goes from activity to purest indolence with great speed and enthusiasm.”
“Oh?” Griffin said.
His tone invited Adara to say more, but she ignored the hint. She wanted to know why, after so many generations—Bruin said that something like five hundred years had passed—a seegnur had returned to Artemis. She wanted to know what had brought this Griffin Dane here. The lore had always been mixed regarding the seegnur. Some tales presented them as wise and talented. Some as grasping and cruel. This seegnur seemed neither wise nor particularly talented—although he had shown courage. Nor did he seem cruel.
Still, Griffin Dane might be minding his manners because he needed her aid. Best to wait and watch and learn. Was he alone? Part of a larger excursion party?
Adara fed her flickering flame with dry grass, then a handful of twigs broken from a scrub oak near at hand. She saw Griffin Dane move to the fringe of the hollow, carefully concealing the stiffness of his battered body. When he returned, he brought with him a dried pine bough.
“Will this help?” he asked.
She smiled up at him. “It will. I wonder where that lazy puma has gone?”
“I could go look for him,” Griffin Dane offered. Adara admired his offer, because Sand Shadow was right. Griffin Dane was afraid of the great cat. “Or I could mind the fire so you can look for him.”
“Her,” Adara said. “Sand Shadow is female. I think she will call if she needs help but, if she continues slow, I may take you up on that kind offer. In the meantime, are you injured? I have an ointment that is very good for bruises.”
She saw Griffin Dane consider denying his injuries, saw, too, that he ruled this to be stupid bravado. Faces and bodies were like game trails. The signs were subtle, but could be read by one who learned the marks.
Bruin, who had been Adara’s teacher, had made certain that Adara learned how to read those marks.
“Too often,” Bruin had said, “those born to hunt believe they know what destiny has shaped them to be. They refuse to learn more. I think otherwise. One cannot hunt forever.”
Those lessons had been a trial, with none of the joy in them that Adara felt when tracking or drawing a bow, but Bruin had been right. The best hunters ranged through wide areas that touched upon many settlements. Knowing how to read those one might meet only once or twice a season was a good thing.
“Yes,” Griffin Dane said. “I would appreciate a share of your ointment. My coverall protected most of me from cuts and scrapes, but I am one massive bruise.”
Adara dug into her pack and came out with two squat pottery jars. “Rub this first ointment anywhere but open wounds. For the rest, use this second ointment. If you wish, I can anoint your back.”
Again the hesitation, then somewhat awkwardly, “That would be very kind.”
At that moment, Sand Shadow returned. The puma had found a nice bit of seasoned scrub oak and had broken off enough to make two neat bundles. These she had slung over her back. Now she pranced into the hollow, pleased as a house cat who had caught a mouse.
Griffin Dane, caught in the act of peeling down the upper portion of his coverall, froze in midmotion.
“Do you have another companion, then?” he asked.
“No,” Adara replied, enjoying his confusion. “Why do you think that?”
“But if no other companion, who loaded the wood onto the puma’s back?”
“She did it herself,” Adara said. “Admittedly, she’s more skilled than many, but haven’t you seen an adapted creature before? The lore says that the seegnur themselves created them.”
She stopped herself before repeating what Bruin had speculated, that the adapted had continued to change in the years since the slaughter of the seegnur and death of machines.
“I have not,” Griffin Dane said. “Our history—what I suppose you might call our ‘lore’—tells of such things, but the manner of creating such was lost in the great war.”
Adara had the feeling that Griffin Dane was not saying everything he might, but did not press.
“Do you have any companions with you? You have shown no anxiety such as you might if someone was trapped within your vessel, but what about elsewhere?”
Griffin Dane stood with the upper portion of his coverall hanging loose around his waist, leaving his upper body bare. If he hadn’t been so badly battered, he would have been an admirable sight, well muscled, with a light down of chest hair. Now, however, he was marked in shades of red, many of these turning the darker purple of deep bruises.
The fire was burning well. Sand Shadow would add more wood as soon as she had her bundles off, so Adara went over to Griffin Dane. Dipping her fingers in the jar of bruise ointment, she moved behind him and began to rub the greasy stuff in, trying to be gentle. Her fingers felt the ripple of muscles beneath the fair skin, confirming her impression that Griffin’s incredible paleness was no indication of ill health.
“I am alone here,” Griffin Dane said after a long moment, “not just here in this place, but also in this system. Does your lore contain stories about how there are many planets, circling many suns, and this is but one?”
“Yes,” Adara said, reaching around him to dip her fingers again into the ointment jar. Her arm brushed against his nakedness and she felt a pleasant tingle. “Some of the folk who live where the air is thicker say this is just a legend, but those of us who live where we can observe the stars see this must be true.”
She did not add that Bruin, who had at one time been a student of the Old One Who Is Young, had told her this bit of lore was true and had shown her the evidence in the dance of the stars and planets.
Griffin Dane nodded. Perhaps to give himself a moment to frame his thoughts, he began rubbing the bruise ointment into his left arm.
“I came here by myself, in a small ship constructed to travel long distances without needing much fuel or tending precisely because it carried just one.” He gave a great shuddery sigh, although whether this was because his bruises hurt or because of some memory, Adara couldn’t tell. “I came alone because I was certain I was on to something that would make my reputation and I didn’t want to share the credit with anyone. I suppose that seems foolish to you.”
Adara laughed deep in her throat. “Perhaps it would not make sense to a farmer or a sailor, but to a hunter or a pro … Yes. It makes sense. You were on the trail of big game and thought you could take it alone.”
“And I was wrong.” For the first time, Adara heard bitterness in Griffin Dane’s voice. “If you knew how long and how carefully I prepared … Then to crash the shuttle within minutes of breaking atmosphere … If I ever get over feeling stupid…”
He shrugged, winced, then, defiantly, shrugged again.
Adara finished rubbing ointment into his back. Feeling a certain reluctance—this Griffin Dane really had a very nice back—she moved over to the fire. Sand Shadow had added a couple of larger pieces of wood before returning to lounge in the sunlight.
When Adara sent her thanks, the great cat stretched in pleasure. A graphic, mocking, and very sexual image followed. Most altered creatures were amused by the human capacity for sex at any time and in any season. They claimed that this alone was what set humans apart from beasts and praised the stars for being spared such distraction.
Adara admitted desire was a distraction, but she’d never been one to have sex with just anyone. Such behavior left one too vulnerable. A huntress, a rare occurrence already, must take care not to seem weak. Even so, she’d warmed herself at that fire and been burnt. Her heart twisted as she remembered Julyan. She’d loved him, given him not only her heart, but sought to shape herself into what she thought he had desired. Yet he had walked away without a backward look.
Yes … She must take care not to seem weak. The lore whispered that the seegnur had the ability to command the people of Artemis. As polite as this Griffin Dane might seem, she must be on guard against his wiles.
Darkness. Deadness. Purest cold.
Heat. Intense, incredible heat. The beginnings of awareness.
Awareness. Purpose. Purpose displacing darkness. Purpose displacing awareness. Awareness becoming purpose.
Copyright © 2014 by Obsidian Tiger Inc.