The group broke camp just past dawn after a quiet meal of jerked beef, dried fruit and a three-inch-round barley biscuits still referred to by its ancient name, ‘salschoon’. Morning wore into mid-day while the knots of gray clouds that had lasted since morning slowly made way for pale streams of daylight. Following a game trail William discovered, the group descended, leaving the trees behind for a wide clearing. There, snow lay in thick drifts of white powder on the ground and pine trees that dotted the gentle slope. Despite events of the previous day, spirits rose just as the sun reached its zenith at noon.
William, having taken his turn carrying young Miles and a pack of blankets, stepped around a snowdrift that had mingled with a large rock. He shifted the pack and the boy’s weight on his shoulders and scanned the sky. “Anybody else hearin’ that?”
Moira helped Angela over a patch of ice hidden by snow. Once she set the girl onto ground next to her she looked up quizzically. “What sound be that?”
Captain Hunter, who was pulling O’Fallon on a crude litter, paused and frowned in concentration.
William looked up and around again. “The hum. Thought it ’twere a bird, y’know? Like one o’ them hummin’birds I heard of.”
Hunter shook his head. “Too cold for that here. They’ll be in the warmer lands.”
Angela looked up. “I hear it, too.”
Just as the sound reached Moira and Hunter’s ears, Moira shot Hunter an alarmed look then gestured to a pair of dark shapes far overhead. “That’s nae bird. Less they come with steam engines and two wings, mind ya.”
Hunter snarled. “Steambats! Make for the trees!”
The powdery snow fought the group as they staggered for the trees only yards away. Above, a pair of steambats hummed overhead like a pair of giant bees. Breaking the clouds, they passed over once, banked, then dove for the running figures like wolves to hunt. Bullets screamed. Streams of water-guided lightning crackled. Snow sprayed in great white plumes behind the group, drawing closer with every step.
Moira, with Angela in her arms, reached the thick stand of trees first. Depositing the young girl behind a tree, she spun and knelt in one smooth motion, pistols in hand. Steadily, she aimed while the plumes of snow and the hail of bullets clawed at the heels of her crew mates. William tripped on a hidden branch, Miles spilled with a scream of terror into the snow.
Without a glance back, William grabbed Miles and threw himself at the trees, falling on a patch of packed snow. They slid breakneck towards the forest. Further behind, Hunter dropped the litter and bodily drug O’Fallon to his feet. Hauling the quartermaster over his shoulders, the captain struggled in the deep snow, racing for his life while the bullets peppered the ground inches behind him.
Moira took a deep breath to steady her aim. Overhead the steambat drifted left, then right like a bird caught on the wind. She waited, letting the shouts around her and bark of gunfire fall away. Then suddenly the small silhouette of the closest aircraft’s pilot crossed her gunsight. She smiled a wicked grin much the way a she-wolf snarls over prey and whispered, “Gotcha.”
Her pistols bucked twice. Time slowed for the sliver of a heartbeat. Two shots arced up and out of the trees along the path the attacking aircraft’s own gunfire had taken. Three seconds later, time collapsed on itself. The pilot jerked once then twice. His steambat sprayed steam and heated water in a wide shower over the clearing before it banked wildly to the right. The second aircraft, caught off guard, narrowly avoided collision with his wounded comrade. He pulled up and over the damaged aircraft then banked to the left, which ruined any chance at a better shot at the people below.
The wounded aircraft danced on the wind, fighting the pilot’s attempt to regain control. Finally, the craft leveled out and gently turned around, heading back up the slope in the direction it had come. Behind it, a plume of steam traced its retreat.
Hunter slowly eased O’Fallon down behind a tree and gulped in the crisp mountain air. O’Fallon looked pale but conscious.
“We be all here? Sound off!” Croaked the quartermaster.
Moira closed her eyes quietly a moment to steady her nerves, then she dropped her pistols into their holsters. She spared a smile to Angela and gave the girl a reassuring hug.
Angela fought back a terrified, angry sob while Moira called over her shoulder. “Moira’s here and I’ve the young miss with me.”
“Miles and Sirrah William,” was a small, shaken, piped reply from behind a tree. That was followed by a deeper voice that finished the call with a wheeze of, “Aye. We’re hale and whole.”
Hunter limped a step or two and sat next to O’Fallon, “Aye, I’m here as well as any.”
“At least we be all breathin’.” O’Fallon turned slightly to look up at the sky and the remaining steambat that circled far overhead. He turned back and leaned against the rough bark of the tree, eyes closed while he fought back a stab of pain.
Moira tossed her pack on he ground and dug out a blanket which she promptly fashioned a crude shawl for the young girl. “Darlin’ yer chilled. Ya shoulda’ said somethin’.”
Angela, pale from the cold, fought another shudder. “I … I’m alright. I’m more worried about Miles.”
Moira smiled. “Well yer a good sister at that, though. William! Get yer lazy backside up!”
A small struggle ensued, but William emerged from the tangle of blankets and bags that threatened to bury him. Miles helped his friend with tossing a few blankets aside as well. “Aye … just sortin’ y’know?”
The shawl finished, a growl resounded in Moira’s voice. “I’d just want ta be knowin’ who the bloody buggers are!”
Hunter exhaled a light cloud of breath. “I don’t know.” He looked over at young Miles, who was fully engrossed in helping William sort and repack the spilled blankets. The captain looked over at Angela in turn, bundled in her makeshift shawl. She was speaking to Moira shyly, much as any child being overly-doted on would.
“I simply just do not know.” The captain repeated firmly in frustration. “What I do know is once we reach a village or somewhere with more shelter than a few trees, we can take a hand at repairing the opti-telegraphic and call the Griffin. Then perhaps pay these thugs back in kind.”
O’Fallon nodded slowly, careful of his head wound. “Aye tae that. Krumer’ll be stayin’ till past all the ship’s stores run dry.” He looked up at the remaining steambat that circled high above. “What be he doin’ up there?”
“Waiting for us to emerge from the trees, I’d likely imagine. He can’t stay aloft all day. A craft that size doesn’t have the fuel for that small a steam engine.”
While the two men watched, the craft dipped its wings once, twice, then gently banked to the right.
O’Fallon frowned while he tried to guess the pilot’s intent. “Now what be he on about?”
In answer, a plume of white snow blossomed on the higher slopes of the mountain as a dull rumble of thunder growled in the distance.
“Light’s breath!” Hunter exclaimed.
Ignoring their discarded packs, William hefted Miles and took the lead, crashing through the snow and dodging trees. Behind him ran Moira and Angela, then further back, Captain Hunter with O’Fallon. From up slope the white plume gave way to a curling wave of snow. At first it was a slow ripple along the mountainside, but in seconds it was a wall of ice, rock and snow several stories tall.
The group raced downhill, shoving through ankle-deep snow. Thick, low-hanging boughs tore at their clothes, slowing them down while the deluge of snow and rocks roared closer behind them. William slid to a stop and pointed as young Miles collided into him in the rush.
Off to William’s right sat a cluster of ancient rocks that towered fifteen feet above. Caught in a depression in the ground, they stood tilted at a wide angle against each other. Most important, they were shelter. Hunter nodded once in appreciation then bellowed to be heard over the roar of the oncoming landslide.
“To the rocks!”
William and Miles reached the small cave first as the spray of snow pushed into the trees. Moira and Angela stumbled along moments later. Lagging behind were Captain Hunter and O’Fallon. Trees bent and snapped from the press of the avalanche, snow flying thick in the air like an icy waterfall. As O’Fallon stumbled on a tree root, both himself and Hunter fell in a heap into the snow. Moira instantly raced out into the impending maelstrom. William yelled but the deafening roar muffled his cries.
Pitched face-first into the ground, Hunter raised his head when the wall of ice and death arrived, hammering him down like a giant fist as snow and rocks swirled deadly through the air. Stunned, his vision blurred from each rock, each branch that hit him. Pain lanced through him but soon it gave way to a cold darkness that tried to blanket him. Dimly, he heard William shout in surprise and Moira exclaim something in shock. Before the darkness swallowed him, he felt one last abrupt tug on his coat. Through the storm of snow, a short mass of brown fur had grabbed Hunter in a pair of strong claws and pulled.