Hunter had turned at William’s shout just as the crewman’s kicking legs were jerked abruptly upwards, out of sight. Immediately, Angela snarled and lept towards the tunnel.
“Angela! No!” Hunter reached for her, but the young werewolf was too quick. She was up and above before he could lay hand to her. He yanked his pistol from the holster at his belt.
“Bloody hell of a thing.”
Moira, in turn, drew weapons. O’Fallon even struggled to rise despite protests from young Miles.
Hunter shook his head. “We can’t all rush out there.”
Moira quickly checked the load in her pistols. “Not plannin’ on it, but someone needs ta be watchin’ ya back.”
Hunter smiled grimly, “True enough.”
The captain adjusted his grip nervously while he crawled up the dugout tunnel towards the surface. Just when he could see trees and sky, he adjusted the grip on his pistol, then eased up to look above the surface of the snow. A few feet from him stood William with his back against a tree. Angela, still in her werewolf form, crouched within reach of William with her teeth bared at two large, upright, white-furred beasts.
Neither creature seemed eager to attack, but both seemed tense. Perhaps it was William and Angela’s appearance from under the snow, or simply uncertainty on how to deal with the snarling were-girl. As quietly as he could, Hunter pulled himself out of the hole and onto the loose snow. He paused to get his balance, and snow crunched lightly against his weight. Neither of the beasts moved, their attention still focused on the pair at the base of the tree. The captain sidestepped carefully away from the hole and raised his pistol, but the moment it was even with the creatures, the snow erupted around him in a storm of white.
A quick step backwards avoided the reach of two more creatures that were to either side of him. Captain Hunter spun towards the one to his right, whipping the barrel of his pistol across the side of the creature’s face. It howled and fell backwards into the snow. Without pause, Hunter turned to the one on his left, only to face a bow with a drawn arrow. Light glinted off the metal arrowhead pointed at his chest. The captain’s gaze followed the arrow back to its owner. At the other end of the bow, beneath the snow-dusted, thick fur was a weathered, tanned, human face with a white wrap over the mouth. As the wind stirred the branches overhead, causing a light puff of snow to drift downward, neither Hunter or the furred man opposite moved. Off to his left, four more of the men in furs emerged from the forest, bows at the ready.
Finally, the bowman nodded at Hunter’s weapon and slowly relaxed the hold on his bowstring. Unsure, Hunter waited, which elicited a few harsh words from the bowman’s gutteral language. Again, the furred bowman nodded at Hunter’s weapon, then relaxed the tension on his bowstring. Outnumbered, Hunter did the only thing he thought would spare lives. He lowered his own pistol slowly with a heavy sigh of frustration.
“Cap’n?” William called out from a few feet away.
“Stand down, Will. I don’t think they mean us harm.”
Angela snarled at the pair in front of her. “I don’t like their smell.”
Hunter slowly dropped his pistol into its holster. “I daresay they are not fond of yours, young lady. Withdraw the claws and stand easy.”
Angela eased off her posture, but did not transform back to her human form. William likewise let go of some tree branch he had been using as a club.
“Aye, Cap’n. Just sure hope ya know what yer about.”
“I do also, William. Though I daresay we have little choice.”
It was young Miles and youthful innocence that finally bridged the gap between the groups. So accustomed to helping with O’Fallon’s wounds, once free of the cave Miles automatically grabbed a small medical bag from William, then offered bandages and antiseptic to the tribesman Hunter had struck across the face. Without a complaint, Miles helped dress the cuts and offered an endless stream of questions and comments. Some of these the tribesman seemed to understand, others he did not. Nonetheless, the tribesmen’s attitude did soften. It was as though if Miles’ attitude removed some unknown suspicion in their minds.
Slowly, an uneasy alliance formed between the small group of airship sailors and the mountain tribe-folk while the snow was cleared away to recover what of the sailors supplies survived the avalanche. After recovering what they could, the long hike down-slope through the snow began. The first hour, the group moved in silence until they stopped under a rocky outcrop for shelter against the sharp mountain winds.
Hunter blew on his hands and rubbed them together against the cold. He glanced at Angela who, still in her part-wolf form, turned her gaze towards the snow at her feet.
“Young miss? I believe you had an explanation?”
“Yes Sirrah.” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I’m not Miles’ sister proper. Though, that’s kinda obvious now I guess.” She hesitated, sighed and pushed onward. “My own mum, she was the housekeeper for Mile’s parents. When they were off and away, she looked after Miles and myself.”
“So where is your mother now?”
“She’s passed on, Sirrah. Two summers back a fever took her. There wasn’t anythin’ the doctors could do. Mum took ill so very fast. There wasn’t much they could be doing. Miles’ parents took me in as their own. Even with my … problem.” She shivered uncomfortably against the cold. “They said they wanted to adopt me. Before they did, they got asked to go off on some trip. We had to stay with Miles’ father’s brother.”
“Uncle Ian,” Miles chimed in.
“He was nice enough, I suppose.” Angela exchanged a glance with Miles. “Not much raised a voice – only a few times, when we didn’t follow the rules he set down at home. Didn’t let us out much unless we were watched. We really didn’t go too many places outside his home.”
Moira joined them, offering a leather waterskin filled with a heady, dark broth. “The hunters there think we be needin’ a good swig or two. It’ll warm ya, I’ll give you that.”
“Ladies first.” Hunter said and nodded towards Angela. The young girl managed a smile and took a small drink. Miles followed suit a moment later. Hunter took a drink himself, then handed the waterskin back to Moira with a thin smile.
“Thank you Moira. Have the others had some?”
“Nay a drop yet, about to pour some down O’Fallon’s rum gullet. Might do him a bit o’ good.” With a grin, she walked around and over to O’Fallon and William.
The captain returned his attention to the two children. “How long have your parents been away?”
“Just upwards to a year.” Miles said with a touch of sadness in his voice. “But they said they’d send for us once it was safe.”
Hunter frowned. “Your father and mother, they are scholars of a sort?”
Miles beamed with pride. “They’re historians.”
“Mother is a scientist, Father is a historian.” Angela corrected her brother firmly.
“S’what I meant.”
Captain Hunter interrupted quickly. “Your uncle, Ian, sent us to rescue you once news reached him in London that your airship was overdue. Is that where you two were going? To meet your parents?”
Angela nodded, “Yes Sirrah, Uncle said that Mother and Father were expecting us at the ruins of Northumbrage. He packed us straight away, and found the first airship heading there.”
“I see.” The captain looked over to where O’Fallon was rising slowly to his feet under the close watch of William and the tribesmen. “Well my dear, somehow we’ll return you to your parents. Although, you were the one sneaking about the camp were you not?”
Angela looked at the ground, a faint touch of pink showed faintly around her eyes while she blushed.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Next time, mind yourself skulking about an encampment like that. You could’ve been grievously hurt. Am I clear?”
“Good. Now, go see if you can help William with O’Fallon. I suspect our stoic hosts are becoming eager for us to quit this place.”
The children ran past Moira in William’s direction. She watched them a moment, lifted and adjusted her backpack’s weight on her shoulders, and joined Hunter while he lifted his own pack.
“S’what do you think?”
“About what, pray tell?”
She smirked. “About the story they’re tellin’. Ya believe ’em?”
“As much as they think it’s the truth, yes. Now is it the truth? Mind you dear, no, I think it’s half-truths at best. I believe they know only what they know. There are loose threads to weave of their story. The most obvious is that the uncle stated they were bound for Port Camden, yet they believe Northumbrige. Neither are within five days sail from each other. Also, why did he send them alone? I would think a relation would accompany them back to their parents?”
“If he’s na’ good with children, the though of goin’ with ’em may not have come ta him.” Moira commented.
“Perhaps. I still feel like something is wrong here. It feels rather dire.”
“Somethin’ more to mix the fuel, then. Angela mentioned to me in passin’ that their Uncle was quite steady in checkin’ over their parents’ home. Always had the children with him, askin’ if they saw anythin’ out o’ place in every room. She said it was a regular weekly outin’.”
“A slight obsessed fellow.”
“Aye, true that.”
Hunter looked over at two of their guards. “The concern of what to do about the children and their uncle comes later. Foremost are our stoic hosts. Have you been able to understand them? I’ve had little luck on my own.”
“Nary a word. What they’re speakin’ sounds odd, na something I’ve heard. William’s been tryin ta work it out. He’s quick with languages. May have figured it, by now.”
“When the chance happens, we need to ask.”
A grunt and a firm tap on the shoulder alerted Hunter to the tribesman that had walked up, unheard, behind him. The captain stood and brushed the snow from his clothes. “Leaving so soon? Well lead on Sirrah, shan’t be late eh?”
The tribesman’s expression showed no emotion or reaction to the comment. He pointed down the thin, snow-covered trail that wound its way downslope, and said something in his gutteral language.
“Right, then.” Hunter sighed and walked over to take his turn pulling O’Fallon on a hastily-carved litter.