Freedom's Wings

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

 

Tigerman led them to a cave on the second level and then through a passageway to a wide ladder that led to the next level.  This was repeated several times until the group found themselves six levels up and in a fairly large cave that overlooked the narrow valley.  

“Rest.  Food come soon,” Tigerman instructed.  

“Did you say that the head elder was your father?” Buck asked.  

“Yes.  Father.  Mother dead.” 

“Ah, you are somewhat of a prince in your own right, then,” commented Buck. 

Tigerman blinked in surprise then shook his head.  “Maybe,” he said noncommittally.  “We small people.  Mistress and her father big people.” 

Buck shrugged.  “Maybe.” 

Soon young Rrilling males and females were bringing in various kinds of foods, some spicy, some bland, but all good.  After they had finished, Buck sat back with a sigh, resting against a rough stone wall.  Wilma nestled against him and he put his arm around her.  

“It’s going to be a rough trip, isn’t it?” she asked. 

“Yes, I think it’s going to be hard.  I just hope Tigerman remembers the best and quickest way,” he replied.  

“And that the reception won’t be too hostile.”  Wilma paused.  “Buck, just what is it that you feel?” 

“You mean what the admiral called my compulsion?” 

“I guess.” 

“I really can’t explain it other than what I was saying before,” he began.  “And I kept seeing Avi-iki’s face when realization began to hit her.  It was like she was in Garo-tura’s mind, too, feeling what he was feeling, hearing his thoughts.  And just before I returned I heard a cry of anguish in my mind.  Hers.”  Buck sighed.  “I can’t let that go, Wilma.  I have to try and find their descendants and let them know how I feel; and what happened.” 

That he had felt Ava-iki’s thoughts hadn’t been mentioned before, but Wilma didn’t wonder that it had affected him so deeply.  She still felt the admiral was right in his assessment of Buck’s behavior; it was almost compulsive, something so deep seated that even Buck couldn’t totally understand its influence on him.  

As the sky beyond the cave mouth darkened, several of the younger Rrilling prepared and then lit a campfire in the middle of the sleeping area.  As they did so, they hummed a deep-throated purring song.  When they were finished, the flames lit up almost every corner of the cave and brought warmth even to the two terrans leaning against the rough wall.  

“Too bad we don’t have smores,” Buck murmured.  

“Huh?  Smores?” Wilma queried.  

“An Earth treat usually fixed on camping trips over fires,” explained Buck, then he elaborated on the custom.  

“Sounds tasty,” Wilma said when he had given her the details.  “Too bad we don’t have the ingredients.”  She yawned.  

“I guess we should all turn in early,” Buck said, stifling a yawn of his own.  Despite the earliness of the hour, everyone soon had their sleeping bags out and were quickly asleep. 

The next day, the path was somewhat less traveled but still easily negotiable.  As they worked their way higher into the mountains and closer to the hidden valley of the Tane-rapanui, though, the trail became more and more rugged.  

“We now in mountains where cubs go to prove adulthood,” Tigerman said, looking at the ominously darkening clouds that gathered above the mountains ahead of them.  “We go higher, then valley, then another mountain.” 

Buck gazed at the clouds as well, wondering just how long they would be able to travel in the relatively good weather with which they had been favored.  He gazed surreptitiously at Sky Mother and Sky Father and could not help but be amazed at how resilient and tough these bird people were.  The older couple had not faltered once; they had seemed less susceptible to the cold and extremely sure-footed on the trail.  And as Buck found later, they also had no problem with the altitude.  

Of course, Tigerman seemed to read the group well, too, stopping just when a rest or halt was most needed.  The Rrilling was an excellent guide, just as Buck figured he would be. 

Near the end of the fourth day, Buck found himself exhausted, almost panting by the time they halted.  When he glanced at Wilma, he saw that she was in distress as well.  Tigerman helped Wilma out of her pack and then approached him.  “Time for air.”

 “No kidding,” he gasped.  “Didn’t think it would be so sudden, though.”  After Buck had pulled out his rebreather, Hawk picked up his pack.  Sky Warrior picked up Wilma’s.   Neither protested their friends’ generosity. 

“Near sleeping place.  Be there soon,” Tigerman informed them.  

The rebreather quickly filled his lungs with much needed oxygen and Buck soon felt much better.  

The sleeping place was another cave, much like all the rest they had stayed in.  As they reached the cave, snow began falling, large and fluffy flakes at first but then more biting as the wind kicked in.  Buck watched the swirling stuff from the safety of the cave as the members of the group pulled out their sleeping bags and prepared their dinner.  He felt the temperature drop and gazed back out of the cave mouth in worry, sincerely hoping that any storms would have held off until they had reached their destination.  The temperatures continued to drop during the night and Buck woke up shivering during the early morning hours. 

 

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Miru climbed to the top of the watch pinnacle and gazed out over the mountains that stood as cold sentinels over the citadel.  The cold wind jerked at her fur-lined coat, almost ripping it off.  She used one hand to hold it close to her body.  Then she fastened the buttons and ties, making sure they would stay closed this time.  Shivering, Miru wondered at this timing of Queen Arana to send her out in what seemed to becoming the worst storm of the winter. But then, those lowest in the social stratum always seemed to get the brunt of Arana’s whims and there was no one lower than Miru.   Even so, it was her turn for a scouting run, so it could just be coincidence.  

The clouds continued to lower and Miru felt the first wet snowflakes against her face.  Such snow would not long remain; soon it would become colder, harder, blown by winds that were already becoming fierce, howling like the lowland creatures that came up to the heights to prove themselves.   Her head feathers stood on end in the wind and Miru tied the cords that would keep the hood in place. Better, she thought as she continued to peer toward the craggy mountains that separated her people’s hidden mountain home from the Rrilling and Draconians.  She knew she would see nothing, not just because of the snowstorm, but also for the simple fact that no one ever ventured up here except the Rrilling cubs.   Then she wondered if that would ever change and she felt pricklings in her mind that she had never felt before.  Miru remembered the Elder Leader’s beloved telling her a week ago that she had dreamed of something wonderful and terrible coming to their city.  Unfortunately, the old birdwoman couldn’t or wouldn’t be more specific than that.   Now, though, Miru wondered if that coming event could be in the form of invaders or visitors.   She gazed out into the thickening storm, as if by will alone, she could see something coming.  Miru felt shivers going up and down her spine and suddenly felt the rightness of what she had been wondering.  Something or someone was indeed approaching.  

Miru wrapped her arms around herself to loosen cold-stiffened muscles and then proceeded down the path.  She noticed that her breathing was deeper to compensate for the thinner air, but it was nothing that she need worry about.  She wondered briefly, as she so often had before, why she had been cursed to live her life without wings.  It didn’t happen often, but it had happened to her.  Most of the time the miru-moruku died young, but she had managed to live, she and Muriin and a few others.  As she had before, she wondered if Muriin would be her mate.  None of the winged would, that’s for sure.  But she didn’t really love Muriin in that way, although she guessed that could come with time.  But no, he and she had grown up almost as brother and sister, almost the same age, clinging tightly to one another since no one else would.   

Miru snorted in disgust—at herself, at the wingeds who acted so superior, at life in general.  She didn’t even know who her parents were.  None of the winged women would dare to acknowledge a deformed child for fear of ridicule.  The miru-moruku were left at the crèche in the middle of the night when no one was watching.    She sighed.  The orphan crèche had been all right, but for almost sixteen turns of seasons, Miru had longed for the arms of someone who truly cared—someone like a mother. 

Oh, well, she thought as a particularly strong blast of cold wind brought her back to reality.  She peered out again, trying to see through the clouds.  She felt something again.  She didn’t know what, but she felt something!  And that surprised her because Miru had never felt anything like that before.  

Where? she asked herself.  Where?  She kept on the trail she was on, the one that led southeast.  If there were intruders, she would have to be careful.  She would have to observe without being observed.  She would have to report back to the warrior/guards.  

Of course, for one as agile and small as she was, that wasn’t too difficult, she thought.  Miru was slight of build, but she had compensated for it by working hard to strengthen muscles.  She could climb and run longer and faster than any of the winged.  They, after all, had their wings.  But she, Miru, the despised, could climb and traverse these little trails like the mountain kerlongs that bounded up and down with impunity and careless abandon.  That was why she had these assignments.  And it suited her fine.  Miru liked the mountains.  They were her friends, even now, when the wind bit at her viciously.  She had watched the kerlongs, knew how they used the wind, the rocks.  At times she felt an exhilaration that had to match that of the winged in flight.  And the mountains didn’t look at her with pity or scorn.  Sometimes she felt that the hard rocks were kinder than the stone hearts of the warriors.  

Miru continued down the mountain, watching for the telltale signs that told of icy spots.  The cold was so complete by now that even when she reached the next valley, the snow still fell, hard and icy.  She began clambering up the other side of the valley, a near escarpment, taking a shortcut that only she and the kerlongs knew about.  If there were any intruders, they would be coming on the narrow trail. She would be able to spot them from above if, of course, the storm didn’t intensify. 

Even though it was full darkness, Miru continued.  The slight amount of reflected light of snow against snow was enough for the moment.  When it became too difficult for even her keenly developed abilities, she found a small cave where several furry trindles lay, curled up, hibernating.  They only grunted as she pushed herself among them, taking advantage of their warmth.  Trindles were only dangerous at one time of the year—mating season.  And sex was the last thing on their minds right now.  

Miru slept and dreamed.  Her dreams were strange and wonderful, of others like herself, miru-moruku who lived and died without ever knowing the winged ones.  She also dreamed of humans, those hated by her people.  Some of the humans were vicious and cruel, killing the people or forcing them by their presence, into caves to live away from the life giving sky.  Others were pleasant faced and smiling, their eyes filled with curiosity and kindness.  Miru was puzzled, always having heard of the cruelty of the humankind, but if her dreams were true indicators?  She awoke confused, not knowing what to think, but wondering just what was approaching her people’s sanctuary.

 

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Hawk watched his human friends with great concern, especially Wilma.  While they had both come equipped with oxygen and the right clothing, Wilma seemed to be having a problem with the cold.  She complained, a thing in and of itself unusual, about waking up shivering throughout the night.  After they had eaten breakfast and set out, Wilma had done better, but the weather didn’t look as though it was going to moderate soon.  If anything, it felt as though it would be even colder.  Buck seemed to be handling it a bit better, especially since he had donned his rebreather the day before.  Hawk sincerely hoped they reached their destination soon.  

He studied Sky Mother and Sky Father carefully.   It was really those two who worried him the most.  Wilma was young, but this had to be hard on the two Tane-rapanui elders.  He noted that while Sky Mother and Sky Father were taking the altitude quite well, the strenuous nature of this trip was beginning to take a toll.  They appeared wan and tired.  Hawk approached them as they were gathering their packs.  Even though he, Sky Warrior, Creel and Keresh were carrying most of their supplies, the two Tane-rapanui leaders had insisted on carrying part of their supplies.  Hawk picked up Sky Mother’s pack, adding it to his own supplies.   

“No, Hawk, you have enough to carry,” Sky Mother protested.  

“No, Sky Mother, some of our supplies were food and are now gone.  I will carry your pack now.   It is much lighter,” replied Hawk, his tone brooking no argument from her.  

After gazing into his dark eyes, Sky Mother agreed.   Sky Warrior did the same for Sky Father.  

Hawk surreptitiously approached Tigerman as everyone began the next leg of the hike.  “How much farther do you think it is?” he asked quietly from just behind the felinoid’s shoulder.  

Tigerman grunted.  “One more day.  Then half day.  Maybe more,” he said gazing at the snow-laden clouds.  The dry flakes bit at them periodically but the sky threatened to do more than that in a very short time.  He turned and made a terse order for everyone to rope together.  The storms in these mountains were quick and deadly in their intensity and could lower visibility in seconds.  He looked back at Hawk, “You, other young bird people, do good.  Older ones, terrans, not so good.  I watch.”  

Hawk nodded and returned to his position in line.  The path, like the one the day before, was rugged and narrow, and their progress was slow.  It was no wonder, thought Hawk, that the winged cousins were able to stay hidden so long.  The clouds continued to thicken and the snow fell more consistently, sometimes thick enough to make it difficult to see even the person just in front.  It became a matter of watching one’s feet and trying to keep from stumbling or slipping on the ice coated rocks.  

Then as the morning became afternoon, Hawk felt something.  He felt eyes watching and wondered if there were predators out hunting in a storm like this.  The feeling grew that this was not an animal but something intelligent.  Hawk wondered first if other Rrilling might have followed them, but then he asked himself if this could be a Tane-rapanui.  The feeling continued even as the afternoon advanced and the sky further darkened, and finally Hawk was convinced that this was indeed one of his people.  

When they finally found a cave to shelter in, Hawk quietly slipped off his backpack and just as quietly approached Sky Mother, who was sitting against a stone wall, resting.  “I am going out to scout around a little bit,” he told her in a low voice.  

“Be careful.  I think there is only one watcher, but this is their land,” she said, her voice tired.  

He simply nodded and then went back to his pack where he pulled out a pair of night vision lenses.  He checked his laser pistol and then as soon as it was totally dark, slipped out of the cave.  The lenses revealed the area in startling clarity, even with the swirling snow.  Watching for ice at the same time, Hawk scanned the rocks around him.  He scouted in an ever-widening perimeter from the cave, knowing that someone was not too far away.  He also realized, though, that he could not roam too far.  Even with the lenses, the terrain and the still intermittently falling snow would make it difficult to find his way back if he went too far afield.  Stopping and listening, Hawk could only hear the incessant howling of the bitterly cold wind.  He shivered lightly, feeling the chill even through the thick parka he was wearing.  

“Do you see anything?” Creel asked.  

Hawk started, but recovered almost instantly.  “No, but I feel something.”  When Creel remained silent, Hawk continued.  “You stay here.  I am going to check a bit further out.” 

He slipped from rock to rock, edging closer to where his senses were telling him their mysterious watcher was.  Something in all of this seemed familiar to Hawk, but he couldn’t tell just what it was.  He continued on, knowing he was almost beyond his safety perimeter.  He slipped behind a boulder and came face to face with a young female Tane-rapanui.  But before he could say anything, she fired a weapon and Hawk felt only a brief instant of his own stupidity before blackness engulfed him.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen
Chapter One
Buck Rogers Contents
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