Freedom's Wings

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

The trip on foot was going to take about a week, everything depending on the weather, which this time of year could be capricious.   Buck worried more about Sky Mother and Sky Father than he did Wilma.  The Tane-rapanui didn’t seem to be that concerned, or if they were, they didn’t show it that much.  Regardless, he and Hawk and Sky Warrior supervised the loading of supplies onto the shuttle. 

“You and Colonel Deering still plan on coming on the expedition?” Sky Warrior asked.  He had asked several times before. 

“You are still asking that question?” Buck responded with a wry smile.  

“Yes, I cannot help but feel that….” 

“We would endanger the expedition,” Buck finished for the birdman.  He sighed.  Old argument, and he was getting tired of explaining his reasoning, especially since he wasn’t able to totally explain it to himself.  “Sky Warrior,” Buck began.  “I know your concern and it’s a serious one.”  He paused.  “But you know how Sky Mother feels about this expedition, right?” 

Sky Warrior nodded.  “Of course.” 

“I feel the same compulsion, the same drive, and need to find these people.  I have explained that before.”  He paused again.  “You do understand that, don’t you?” 

“Yes, I understand, but I also understand my need to protect my leaders.” 

“I know and I feel the same way, Sky Warrior—Taro-iniki.”  

Sky Warrior acknowledged Buck’s use of the honorific for his position.  

“Somehow, I don’t think Sky Mother and Sky Father will be in danger from these people,” Buck added.  

“I hope not,” Sky Warrior said.  “And I hope that you and Colonel Deering will not be hurt by these Tane-rapanui either.”  

“Thanks,” Buck answered, touched by the birdman’s concern. 

They landed early morning on a sunny day that belied what they would probably experience when they made it into the mountains.  A dour-faced Draconian official immediately met them at the landing site.  By pre-arrangement, Buck did all the talking, Wilma and Tigerman at his side.  

“You are from the Earth ship?” the official asked.  His dark, almost black eyes gazed intently at them.  His frowning mouth was ringed with the bushiest beard and mustache Buck had ever seen.  

“Yes, we are.  This is a scientific expedition,” explained Buck, handing over the papers Ardala had signed.  “All approved by her royal Highness, Princess Ardala.”  

The official just grunted as he took the papers and looked them over.  “Seven Krelarian scientists?” 

“Yeah.”  

“They must come out of the shuttle.” 

“Sure,” Buck said and ducked back in the shuttle.  Hawk was waiting inside the door.  “Just make sure your head feathers stay covered.” 

“Of course,” Hawk said softly. 

The seven Tane-rapanui slowly walked out of the shuttle, striding with great dignity, hoods down partway over their eyes.  They stopped in front of the official, saying nothing. 

“Why do you wish to go into the mountains?” asked the official.  “They are haunted, you know.” 

Hawk spoke, intoning a few words of the Tane-rapanui language. 

“Uh, they don’t speak terra lingua or Draconian,” Buck said. 

“Oh.” 

“But they are here because they are scientists and your mountains are a mystery.” 

“Suit yourselves,” the Draconian said with a shrug.  He pointed to Tigerman.  “He your guide?” 

“Best one around,” Buck said with a smile.  Tigerman folded his arms across his chest and looked smug. 

“Some of the locals might dispute that, but I won’t argue.”  He turned to his data pad when Tigerman gave a warning growl, and conscientiously tapped a few things in it.  When he looked back up, he avoided Tigerman’s hard stare.  “The shuttle staying?” 

“No, it’ll be returning to our ship,” replied Buck.  “We’ll be heading out within a couple of hours.”

“Moving kind of fast.” 

“Yeah,” Buck answered, getting heartily tired of the little chitchat session.  “But we’re ready.  Why spend time lounging when we can get a start today?”  Hawk led the Tane-rapanui back into the shuttle. 

“The local merchants don’t mind.”  The Draconian grinned.  

“I’ll bet.” 

“Well, you have three hours in this berth and then it’s someone else’s turn,” the official said.  “Good luck up there.  If you don’t come back in . . . uh, how long are you going to be up there?” he asked, waving his hand in the direction of the tall mountains to the north of them. 

“At least three weeks, but the exact time frame depends on the team,” Buck replied, wishing the Draconian would leave. 

“Well, if you aren’t back in a reasonable time, I’ll light the journey candles for all of you.” 

“Thanks,” Buck said with a wry grin.  “You’ll have to excuse us.  If we’re going to get everything out in a couple of hours, it’ll take all of us.”   

“All right,” the official said.  “Good luck.”  With a wave, he turned and left.  

“Never thought he’d leave,” Wilma muttered. 

“Tell me about it,” agreed Buck.  He turned back toward the shuttle.  “Okay, troops, let’s get this show on the road.” 

With the help of several crewmembers from the Searcher, they had the supplies unloaded and distributed within two hours.  Everyone but Sky Mother had large packs, but even so, Buck worried if they had enough.  Tigerman assured them that there was some food to be had on the way up.  Buck, and Wilma shared his concern, only hoped that the mountain Tane-rapanui were predisposed to help them out on their return journey.  They set out on a path that appeared well used.  

“My people,” Tigerman said, pointing to the well trod path.  

The day was pleasant and the winter gear was soon pulled off and stowed in the packs.  The path was wide and well marked, and the hikers were able to appreciate the beauty of the scenery around then.  Even so, Buck was still glad that Tigerman had trained them so mercilessly.   

“How far is your people’s town?” Wilma asked the felinoid several hours into their trip. 

“One day.  We there tonight,” came the answer. 

She nodded.  “Thanks.” 

Tigerman grinned.  “No problem.”

Wilma did a double take, peering at him intently.  “You’ve been around Buck too long,” she said with a wry smile.  

He just grinned even more broadly, his canines gleaming.  She grinned back.  

As they continued their hike, Buck handed Wilma a bright, variegated orange, yellow and rust colored flower.  The petals flared out like a trumpet curling at the ends.  The center was bright red.  

“Very pretty,” she said, taking it. 

“Do not smell,” Tigerman said.  “Do not keep.” 

“Why not?” she asked. 

“Colors pretty to creatures,” he said, growling a name that none of them could replicate.  “Inside poison.” 

“Oh,” she said, glancing at the flower again.  Then she looked at Buck who was gazing sheepishly at her.  He shrugged his shoulders.   “And I thought you liked me,” she quipped.  

Grinning, he said, “Except for you, I’ll admire beauty at a distance from now on.” 

Tigerman just grunted and Wilma laughed.  Hawk, following just behind them, smiled his appreciation of the joke.  

Buck walked back along the line of travelers to see how everyone was faring on the first leg of the trip.  He walked up to Sky Mother.  “How are you doing?” he asked. 

“It is too early to be asking me that question, Buck,” she replied, looking at the mountains before her.  “But I am learning to love these mountains.  They are filled with such beauty, and mystery and wonder.” 

Buck nodded, not really able to add much to what she said.  

“I am glad our friend, Tigerman made us work to get stronger for this journey, however,” she added.  

“Yeah, me, too,” he agreed. 

They continued upward at a fairly brisk pace, only stopping periodically to rest.  Buck kept feeling that something was watching them; an observation shared by most of the others, but Tigerman assured them that it was his own people’s scouts.  The mountains in the distance continued to be wreathed in clouds, something that made the terran wonder just how cold it was going to be up there. 

Shortly before sunset, Tigerman gave a great ululating howl.  It was answered nearby and in the distance by other growls and howls.  At the curve in the trail, several other Rrilling waited on the path to meet them.  What followed was what Buck could best describe as a cross between a group of tomcats on a fence and a pride of lovesick lions.  Tigerman and the others barked and growled at each other for several minutes.  Then the felinoid turned to them and beckoned the group to follow him.  

A short while later, the trail widened into a narrow valley, no more than thirty feet wide.  A rushing stream flowed past the base of a steep cliff that was somewhat terraced and honeycombed with caves.  Buck was amazed to see that the cave system was seven stories high.  He could see no ladders and he wondered if there was some kind of access from inside the caves.  

“Come,” Tigerman said, leading them to a fairly flat meadow at the far end of the valley.  Several grizzled old Rrilling males sat waiting, hunched around a small fire that gave out very little smoke.  Like Tigerman, they were completely bald, although one was sporting a fairly thick beard.  They wore fur clothing.  Jerkins left their arms bare and the leggings were cut off at the knee.  Moccasin-like footwear covered their feet.  Every golden eye studied them closely.  One of them got up and grinned, then barked a greeting.  

Tigerman responded in kind, then grabbed the older Rrilling by the shoulders and shook him roughly.  The older felinoid jerked Tigerman to his chest growling ferociously.  Despite the fierceness of the greeting, Buck could only guess that this was one of Tigerman’s relatives, perhaps even his father, since they seemed to resemble each other.  

The older Rrilling drew back and growled a question, gesturing toward them.  Tigerman growled out a lengthy explanation, whereupon the older felinoid approached Buck, and grabbed him in the same way he had greeted Tigerman.  He grinned and pounded Buck on the back as he released the terran from what seemed like a death clinch.  Buck staggered back, feeling as though he had just gone through a couple of rounds in a WWF ring.  He glanced at Tigerman for an explanation.  

“Father thanking you for saving me.”

“Oh,” Buck choked out.  “My pleasure,” he told Tigerman’s father.

Tigerman addressed the group.  “Sit here.  Rest.  Leaders talk.” 

After the day’s walk, the instructions weren’t that hard to follow.  Hawk motioned for Sky Mother and Sky Father to sit nearest the Rrilling elders and he and Sky Warrior sat close by.  Wilma, Buck and the others sat behind.  The oldest Rrilling began his growling speech and it was then that Buck wished they had had the foresight to bring translating devices like those he had used with the Lagrithians.  

After a short while, Tigerman began translating, augmenting with signs.  “Father says you look like winged ones, but no wings.  He says winged ones not like others in mountains.  Why try find winged ones?” 

Sky Father leaned forward.  “They are our kin.  For many years we have been lost to each other.  We have been scattered all over the galaxy.  It is time to find our people.”  He paused and then pointed to Buck and Wilma.  “These have found our kin and brought us here.  Your son is leading us to these people’s home.” 

The Rrilling elders nodded and then spoke again, and again, Tigerman translated.  He pointed to Sky Mother and Sky Father.  “They say you two old.  Hard journey.” 

Sky Mother nodded.  “We know.  But we are the elders of our people.  These,” she pointed to Creel and Leera, “will follow us when we die.”  She pointed to Sky Warrior.  “He is our war elder.”  Next she touched Hawk.  “He is our Star Warrior, the last member of our people on Throm.”  

The head elder pointed to Buck and Wilma and growled softly.  Tigerman hesitated.  

“You don’t have to translate,” Buck said.  “I think I can figure that one out.  We are not bird people and as such, we will not be welcome.” 

Tigerman nodded. 

“It is something I have to do,” was all Buck would say.  If they didn’t understand, life was tough. 

“These two are tied to the Tane-rapanui and as such are part of our group.  Their presence is necessary,” Sky Father said insistently. 

The elder growled a reply and then he and his companions got up and walked away.  Buck wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one, but he waited for Tigerman to let them know.    

“Come,” Tigerman said, gesturing for the group to follow him.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen
Chapter One
Buck Rogers Contents
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