Massive and piled, the mountain skirts hung green around the village in the valley. Of stone and thatch, the cluster of houses turned inwards on a cobbled square, as if intimidated. Small fields, set along the narrow valley floor, revealed a careful prosperity. Still shadowed by a baulking shoulder of stone, early morning chores called to small children. A clank of pail, the cluck of fowls scrabbling for scraps and the coughing grunts of beasts
Faintly, but growing louder, a new and very different sound. Down the valley came the roaring turbine of a helicopter.
A small boy erupted from a cottage doorway. “Father it’s coming, just like An Duic said it would!”
Peace Radan.” A squat and burly man, hale in his middle years, appeared in the doorway. ‘Waking up your mother will not get it here any quicker. Nor are the fowls getting fed.” Radan began rebelliously to scatter the crumbs and crusts of yesterdays bread. Covertly he kept his eyes watching the direction from which the sound came. His father walked out into the center of the square and shaded his eyes from the morning. Light broke over the ridge. From a bright dot of glare, the machine quickly resolved into a twin bladed, rotary carryall. The sun caught the curve of perspex and flashed on the rotating blades.
Dubhag, a name well earned: dark and burned darker by weather, grunted and stumped across to a large house over the way. The door was shut. He knocked. The flying machine was circling now, battering the community with sound, obviously intending to land in the watermeadow below the village.
The door opened. A small bright eyed woman, pert as a sparrow, greeted him.
“It 1s come, ‘ He said grimly.
“Do you think we are as deaf as Clath Nathrach, The Duke is at breakfast, I suppose you had better join him.”
“Breakfast, with that – thing scaring the sky?”
“It will wait.” She shood him into a dim entrance hall and through to a combination living-room kitchen.
A slight older, man was eating porridge from a red earthenware bowl. He wiped his mouth and went to stand.
Finish your breakfast.” said the woman sternly.
The seated man motioned Dubhag to a place opposite him. A bowl of porridge, running with melted butter, was set before him.
“She would have us eat even if Mac Agus A’ Mum themselves came to Shuil De.
Dubhag regarded the speaker over his bowl of steaming porridge. Grey hair fringed a balding pate and neatly a trimmed mustache hung each side of a small mouth. Grey eyes were bright. The facial hair was an affectation from his days in the capital and cultivated assiduously. Florid of face and pigeon chested: An Duic Chat: The Duke of the Cat Folk, pointed his spoon at his companion, “She has a point, as always, puffing up to them like yokels will only diminish us.”
Dubhag nodded. “True, let them come to us.”
Silence fell as porridge disappeared.
Fern climbed down from the cargohold, he stretched. Carryalls make poor passenger transport. He unclipped a handset from his belt and spoke into it: “Lazlo, you can start the unloading sequence.”
A hatch like a pikes mouth dropped on hydraulic extensors and grounded. With a soft hum, a conveyor started discharging plastic crates Using a small caterpillared forklift Fern stacked them away from the undercart. As he did so, his eyes strayed to the village. Not a soul stirred. Even, in the unlikely event, that his superior had failed to notify the village of their arrival: surely it was at least unusual (if not unique ) for a helicopter to set down within the village precincts.
The unloading sequence ended. Arnulf came down with the last crate. Short, swart, compact; blocky muscles moved under his coveralls. A striking contrast to Ferns! tallness and fair coloring. Fern drove the forklift back into it’s pod. “Trust you to take the easy way down.”
Arnulf jumped down. ‘Where is everyone?” Obviously he had anticipated being the center of attention of an awe-struck population of peering natives.
Fern used his handset: “Thanks Lazlo, see you in four weeks, take her up.” The motor coughed, caught and the craft rose. Turning on its’ axis it took off down the valley, climbing.
Leaving their stockpile of gear, they entered the village. It became clear that their arrival was being ignored. Two old men sat on a bench intent on a board game. Two young men swept the cobbles in front of adjacent houses and a dumpy women with a basket bustled out of one doorway and into another. The only creature that evinced any curiosity was a brindled hound that sniffed at them and then wandered off.
“That must be the Dukes’ house.” said Fern, pointing to the largest structure that fronted the square. They went up to the door. It was open. Uncertainly Arnulf knocked. The pair waited and then knocked again.
From the dim interior came footsteps and a voice: “Coming, coming, I only have one pair of legs and one of hands, a body can only be in one place at once.” A ruddy man popped out of the door. “Well then, you must have come with that.” He indicated the direction in which the helicopter had left. “Well, we are all expecting you, your rooms are ready, the best we have, in you come. Have you breakfasted? My lad makes the best porridge in Shuil De, if I say so myself, and I do.”
Trying to stem the torrent, Fern essayed: “Duke of the Catfolk?”
“Heavens no, what can you be thinking? Imagine me : ‘Duke of the Cat Folk’. Wait till I tell Dubhag that one.” he chortled. “No, he lives yonder, this is the Wayhouse, the best in the whole valley if I say so myself, and I do. My Duke is at breakfast and so should you be. You can’t interrupt him, most improper. Come in, come in, I haven’t got all day to stand talking.
Fern tried again: “My name is Fern Iyvo this is.. He got no further.
“Yes, yes ArnuIf Felix from the , what was it…. The exeno something or other…?
“Exenobiological Survey, we’ve come to..”
“Yes, yes. It’s such a joy to meet someone from the capital. I have been in this back-water for ten years, ten years.” He said sorrowfully.
After they had been escorted into the dinning room, and sat in front of bowls of porridge and tall mugs of milk, creamy from the cow, Fern tried to explain. “This was the biggest house in the village, so we thought it was The Dukes.”
The Wayhouse Keeper, who had introduced himself finally as Bigirich, nodded bobbing. “I see, that explains it.”
“When can we see The Duke?”
“After breakfast.” Firmly.
Outside the Dukes house, they knocked and waited. The door was opened by a women who ushered them in, her lips thin with disapproval. They entered the Ducal presence.
“I have of course received messages concerning your arrival and have taken steps to see that you will be cared for.” The Duke paused. “You have come to collect animals.” A hesitation. “Which animals?”
“The animal you call the Donn.” ArnuIf.
“The Donn You want to hunt the Donn? “ This from a dark man who had sat watching from a corner of the room.
“We don’t wish to kill them,” Fern said quickly, mystified by the alarm. “We wish to capture them alive, we have tranquilliser guns. They put the animals to sleep without harming them.”
“Yes, yes, we have heard of such things.” The Duke said too quickly. ‘”You will want a guide?” A change of subject.
“Yes, and some help bringing up our gear.
“Cumaichtet” The woman appeared. ” Ask Bigirich Wayhouse Keeper to arrange for these gentleman’s belongings to be brought up from Low Meadow.” The woman bustled out. “I expect you will want to settle in before we make further arrangements for your expedition. ” It was a dismissal, polite, but a dismissal none the less. Fern and Arnulf took their leave and were escorted to the door by The Duke. “Come after the Noonmeal and we will talk further.”
The door shut.
Behind it, the Duke returned to an agitated Dubhag ( or as agitated as the impassive hunter ever got). “What of The Pact? We cannot hunt The Donn.” He put his head in his hands. “How could you agree?”
The other man raised an eyebrow, “Agreed?”
“You said we would meet to arrange for the hunting.”
“And you, good Dubhag, will be the guide.”
I never will I consent to… ” Light dawned. Ah, Cunning. Poor outlanders, dragging themselves through every bog and briar, and never a sight of the Donn at all.” He shook his head in mock sorrow. laughing, guttural in his throat, he rose to go.
Unpacking took the pair until a mellow chime announce Noonmeal. They sat down to an excellent collation of vegetables cooked in piquant sauces. The food washed down by a malty beer. It was a great change from the synthetic fair of Interstell ships.
As they ate, the companions scanned the information supplied by The Service concerning their assignment. The planet had only been discovered recently. Or more accurately, rediscovered. The inhabitants were definitely human. They must be descendants of some colony, cut off during the Diaspora. Contact had only recently been re-established. A Centre enclave taking over from the military base that had preceded it.
After the military came the scientists. Hungry for knowledge of how human populations and their animals had adapted. Reports had reached H’aon that an animal resembling the Terran stag had been seen in this area and Fern and Arnulf had been dispatched to find out if it was related to an Earth animal, or a coincidence of evolution.
Looking up from his handset and pushing away his empty plate, Fern asked his companion- “What do you make of our Duke?”
“He seems to have taken us rather in his stride.”
“It’s the custom, for Dukes sons to be educated at the capital, it ensures loyalty and continuation of policy.”
“Still we do come from off-planet.”
‘Off Planet? Overseas? in a planet as wild as this, one may be as outlandish as the other, or not outlandish at all. It’s not as if we looked alien. These people come up human to as many decimal places as you do.”
“Damn it, we’re strangers. Don’t they have any curiosity?”
The native, away from the cities at least, consider it a diminishment of pride to express curiosity. They call it- Ular Chathain. I translate it to mean – ‘The winnowing floor.’”
Later in the afternoon, the pair sat on a bench in front of The Wayhouse.. The Sun was warm. ”The Duke seems cooperative enough and Dubhag knows his business. Bigirich told me he the best hunter in the valley. He also told me the doings of his relations and connections to the seventh degree.” He added wryly.
“My he can talk.” Arnulf said in wonder, “Unlike the others he comes from the capital”
“The lady Cumaichtet treats him with little courtesy.”
“ Talking is not a highly prized art. Say what you have to say and shut up. We had better watch our own tongues.”
“Where are you off to?’
Radan turned from the door and faced his father. “I thought I would go to The Wayhouse and see to Bigirich’s hens.”
“ And have a look at the strangers” I suppose.” said Dubhag with mock severity. “Go on lad, don’t make a nuisance of yourself.”
Radan took off like a rabbit and soon was pretending to feed the birds at- the feet of the wonderful strangers. If they could, the boys ears would have flapped.
Suddenly the blond one, Fern, turned to him. “What’s your name lad?”
“Radan.” He gulped.
‘Don’t be scared, I haven’t eaten anyone all day”.
Radan bristled, “I’m not scared.” His jaw stuck out, with only a slight quiver. “My father is the best hunter in the valley.” Taking his heart in his hands, Radan asked a question: “Who is your father?”
“Mine? He pushes a pen in a cubby at Interstell Transport. He has no claim to fame except he breeds excellent cluthors. Have you ever seen a Donn? “
Caught off guard, the boy stammered. “Once, on the slopes of Clath Natrach. A stag, horns as wide as this.” He spread his arms, spilling scraps. In a flurry the hens pounced. “Have you ever.. hunted them?” Radans’ jaw dropped. “Oh no!”
“Radan, these hens are fed, go home to our own.” The hunter came up to his son and tousled his hair. He gave him a gentle shove, to help him home. Radan ran off, almost tripping as he craned back over his shoulder.
“Hunt the Donn,” the boy thought as he ran, “They must be mad.”
Dubhag faced the seated pair. “It is bad luck to hunt these animals. People, strangers, have tried…. things have happened.?” His mouth shut with an almost audible snap.
“What sort of things? from Fern.
“I have to see Bigirich about supplies.” They entered the Wayhouse
”There was nothing about this superstition in our briefing, someone at H’aon has slipped up.” Fern looked morose. “I wish I could get to the bottom of the cause. If we did that, we might be able to do something to make things easier.”
“Don’t push the luck, be thankful we are being guided at all. Don’t spoil it by playing boy detective. Leave well enough alone.”
Fern sighed. Later, he would remember this conversation.
Strangers have come, they wish to hunt.”
“What of The Pact?’
They do not come from Innis, they ride the void.”
“They will be stopped.”
“Wait, they have machines, if they disappear, others may come to look.”
“Have you read them?”
“With difficulty, their minds lack discipline.”
“My sympathy. can they be influenced?”
“They are materialists.”
“One has something we can use. One of us must wake, I think Esor -she resembles a memory to be exploited.”
“I will see to it.
“Move away from the tops till it is safe.”
“It is already done.”
The Common Room of the Wayhouse was crowded. Men and women sat or stood, talking and drinking beer from large mugs. The low beamed roof was thick with smoke from the fire. Lantern light struggled through the fume. Fern and Arnulf sat in the corner looking glum.
” More beer gentleman?’ Begirt appeared and added their empty glasses deftly to a crowded tray. The two men nodded and the Keeper bobbed off back towards the tap.
A whole week and not a sight of an animal. grumbled Fern.
“Animals we’ve seen in plenty,” Corrected Arnulf, “Just no Donn.”
“Our great hunter is not doing his job.”
“I don’t know, I think he is doing his job, that’s the trouble.”
“That thought crossed my mind.”
“He’s far to cooperative.”
What can we do?”
“Go off by ourselves?”
“The Duke wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Why tell him?”
:The village doesn’t have a backdoor. Despite all their incurious behavior, I bet the Duke finds out every time we sneeze. If we tried to sneak away we wouldn’t get ten metres”
“Well what would you suggest?” Exasperation.
Beer arrived. They thanked Bigirich. Fern reached for his and was raising it to his lips when he noticed his companion staring fixedly at the door. He was suddenly white to the lips.
“Harass.” Whispered Arnulf.
Fern turned in his chair. In the doorway stood a young woman: dark curly hair, cut asymmetrically exposing one ear. On it hung pendant – a golden torus. Pointed chin, straight nosed, grey eyed and skin dark with sun. Striking rather than beautiful. The whites of her eyes, very white, flashed as she scanned the room.
Like a falling blanket, talk in the room died, stumbled and picked up again. Every eye flicked towards the figure in the doorway and away again. In Shuel De there were no strangers. The village was small and by now Fern knew everyone by sight.
Arnulf still stared fixedly.. Once again he whispered “Harass!”.. Fern put down his drink, reached across the table and grabbed his friends arm, shaking it.
“Arnulf, Arnulf, Harass is back at Center and by now old enough to be your grandmother.”
Arnulf shook himself, coming out of daze. “Sorry.” He laughed self-consciously. “I don’t know what happened” He broke off. A shadow fell over the table. The girl stood there. Both men went to stand. The girl shook her head in negation and eased into a chair. The men subsided.
“I am Esor and you are Fern and ArnuIf.” Her voice was slightly deep for a girl abrupt and strangely accented. “You have come to hunt the Donn, why?”
“To study.” Fern got out blushing, and being angry with himself for doing it. “We need to know if they are adapted Earth animals.”
“They are not.” Definite. “Now you can go.”
Fern shook his head. “We have to find out for ourselves, and anyway, how do you know?”
“You are not having any luck.” Ignoring the question.
“No’.”‘ Fern willed himself to relax, Arnulf watched the girl like a bird confronted by a snake.
“The Donn are not easy to catch, you should try the bodach. They are very beautiful,” ( the bodach where gazelle like animals with four pearly spiral horns )’
“We came for Donn that is our assignment.” Unequivocal.
“So I feared.” Then brightly: “The weather is changing, soon it will snow.”
“All the better for tracking.” This from Arnulf, who seemed to have recovered.
She sighed. “If you are determined, you are determined, we will have to see what can be done.’ She rose and nodding at Fern and giving Arnulf a small smile, she left as suddenly as she had come. The door banged.
Looking back at Arnulf, Fern said, “what was all that about?”
“I don’t know, but Harass or no, she was beautiful. I’m going to find out who she is.?! He rose and approached the bar.
Fern smiled at his friends back and then the smile vanished. Dubhag was approaching their table with a grim determination.
The hunter sat in the recently vacated chair and regarded Fern dourly. “What did She want?” The capital was definite. Fern shrugged. “She is not from here. Leave her alone.”
“She is gone, I don’t seem to have any choice.” Nettled.
The hunter grunted dubiously. He abruptly rose and. joined a group drinking at the bar. They talked and gave the table where the outlanders sat, infrequent stares from under lowered brows.
Arnulf returned. “Well?” said Fern.
” He shut up like a clam.” Disgust.
“Curiouser and curiouser.”
The door opened again, this time admitting the Duke. He looked a little out of sorts and walked with determination to Dubhags’ group and engaged them urgently in a low voice. The looks aimed at Fern and Arnulf increased in frequency and in a guarded hostility. An argument developed between the hunter and his lord. Suddenly Dubhag turned angrily on his heel and stalked out. He was closely followed by the other men.
“So he does have emotions.” Was all Fern could say.
Fern looked up from checking his equipment as a shadow fell on his pack. The girl stood there. She was flanked by a smiling Duke and a scowling Dubhag.
“Are you ready?” inquired Esor.
All Fern could do was gape.
“Esor has agreed to help with the tracking, she knows the mountains,” The Duke said, a little too quickly. with a smile a little too broad.
Arnulf stepped out of the Wayhouse door, blinking. in the sun. He saw the girl, a grin split his face. “Hello,” He said, “I didn’t think we would have the pleasure again.”
The smile was returned. “I am to help with tracking.”
ArnuIf looked happy, Dubhag did not and Fern looked thoughtful.
The quartet shouldered their packs and headed once more for the mountain. Dubhag led, Fern and Arnulf and Esor followed talking and laughing. Soon the village was left in its’ nest of trees and the country started to climb.
The gully was deeply carved and steep. Wet rock walls sprouted moss and small fern shrubs and larger trees thrust up from the riven rim. The floor was tangled with fallen timber gaudy with fungus like elephant ears. In single file the four walked with care. Frequently Dubhag had to wield a knife to clear tangles.
After several hours of silent exertion they emerged at the head of the gully.
They found themselves on a shelf of rock. Low heather grew where it could.
While they had been under the tree a chill wind had blown up. It had brought masses of cloud. heavy, grey and threatening. It was the soft fat sort that carried snow.
“You were right about the weather.” said Fern looking up. The girl inclined her head in acknowledgment. She pointed. “There is the cottage.”
Arnulf looked at the grey unmortared stone and weathered thatch, “Strange place for a girl to live alone.” He said.
“It is a place I use sometimes.”
“Where do you usually live then?”
The girl looked up towards the mountain ridge.
“Up there?” in disbelief.
Dubhag: “This is the steep edge of an escarpment. There are moors.”
“Another village?” Arnulf to the girl.
“It is getting late, we must gather wood for a fire.”
She left Arnulf standing exasperated. “I didn’t think answering simple questions was so hard.” He began to gather dead wood.
The fire limed bright dark hair, a line of cheek and shadowed the eyes, the girl stirred a pot of savory stew. Arnulf watched her as he half heartedly made notes into his handset.
Dubhag sat, renewing the binding on his broad bush knife. Fern stood in the doorway looking out. “It’s starting to come down.”
“It will be thick on the ground by morning and drifting even deeper on the tops.” Esor said from the fire.
“Not good weather at all for hunting.” Dubhag: hopefully.
“Our gear is the best that Center has to offer. In this, anything that moves will leave tracks.”
“Fat lot of good that will do if we fall into a gully and die.
” Don’t tell me you’re giving up too!” Fern looked at his friend amazed.
Arnulf’s’ eyes strayed to the girl. who had returned to her pot, “I just thought we might hole up here for a few days and wait till it cleared.”
Fern shook his head and grinning turned back to regard the steadily whitening landscape.
“Must I do it?”
“We cannot be discovered, even their sleeping minds intrude.”
“Not to me.”
“You are protected, that is why you are chosen to move among The valley People.”
“But he will be lost forever, he cannot return, like us.”
“Better him; than us: maimed and gibbering.”
“Is there no other way?”
“We once roamed free over this whole planet, and you ask that?”
”I will do it.”
“You will do it.”
Fern was never clear in his mind afterwards what it was that woke him. He opened his eyes to darkness. The total ink that only exists in non-tech environments. It was also silent. Perhaps it was the silence that roused him. He had drifted off to sleep with the reassuring sounds of the others breathing and the rustle of sleeping bags.
Unzipping, he reached for his torch and shielding the glass with a palm, he switched it on. The glow, red with his flesh, revealed the disordered mounds of three sleeping bags. Climbing out of his own, he dressed. His breath was foggy, he donned thermal coveralls and field boots. He belted on his personal kit and unclipped his handset.
He pushed the call button. A tone sounded from Arnulfs’ pack. Fern swore. He went outside.
The snow that had been falling had ceased, thick cloud threatened more. The dull glow of his watch read-out displayed 12-30. He played the beam of his torch on the ground three sets of prints left the doorway and crossed the shelf of rock and disappeared into a gully. A gully that climbed upwards. On the exposed shelf the snow was a little less than half a metre deep.
Muttering half in anger, half in bewilderment. Fern followed. In the gully the blackness was absolute except in the lamp beam. Fern squared his shoulders and set off.
“Put it out, it is more hindrance than help. Your eyes will adjust and it shows your position for all to see.” A shadow detached itself, from shadows and Dubhag loomed.
Fern yelped: “Dubhag, “Where are the others, what’s going on?.
“Gone, you were warned.” A grim relish. “The tracks are about two hours old.”
Fern started up the valley, but he stopped, when the hunter failed to follow. “Come on! They did not go together?”
“About ten minuets behind.”
“We must catch up.”
Dubhag gripped Ferns’ arm. “You won’t see Arnulf again”.
“We wont if we don’t look.” He struggled in the hunters grip.
“This has happened before, people don’t hunt the Donn.”
“Scared!” sneered Fern and collapsed in the snow. A fist had come out of the dark and slammed into his jaw.
Dubhag grunted and threw Fern on his shoulder and returned to the hut. He lay Fern on his sleeping hag and covered him with another. Then he broke the turf crust on the fire, threw on sticks and put a can of water on to boil. Staring into the flames, he waited grimly for the dawn.
Arnulf had woken to see the figure or Esor disappear through the door. He resisted an impulse to inquire and waited. When she didn’t return he dressed and followed. He left Dubhag and Fern to their slumbers. Discussion and argument would only increase her lead. “Maybe we can get to the bottom of this he thought.”
The shelter afforded by the gully walls had protected the floor from the worst of the snow. At its’ deepest it was only about ten centimetres. The girls tracks were plain in the torchlight. Arnulf followed
He climbed for about an hour. The cold increased. The snow crunched brittle as its’ surface froze. Ice crystals formed in his eyebrows from his breath. The total darkness cut by the precise calligraphy of torch light, the rhythmic crunch and the numbness of his face conspired to bring a sense of dreamlike unreality. The snow had blurred everything. The gully climbed upwards, twisting and turning. of the girl, only the tracks offered mute evidence of her passage.
ArnuIf rounded a boulder that stuck out from the gully wall and stopped. Where were the tracks? He turned and shook himself mentally. A narrow fissure split the rock on the upward side of the boulder. In it went the tracks. Without thought he shoved: light, head and shoulders through. The beam fell square on the girl. Her hand went up to her face.
“Turn it off, its too bright.”
He complied and only then noticed the glow of a small fire in the shelter of a large boulder. The girls face smiled at him, dim in the glow.
“Come in, warm yourself.”
Astonished beyond thought or answering, he sat beside her and put his hands to the glow. He turned to the girl: “What’s going on?” He asked plaintively.
For answer the girl slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him for a very long time. They parted breathlessly. They regarded each other. The girl in ernest. Arnulf in wonder.
Esor broke the silence. “You must go.”
Arnulf mentally slipped gears and finally managed to mesh enough to get out: ‘But, I thought.. are you in trouble?”
“The troubles not mine. Go back to where you come from, or I cannot answer for what…”
“I’m not going till I find out what this is all about. Anyway we have to find the animals.”
“You cannot, go!”
The girl sighed. “It is as I feared.” She slipped her arms around the man? neck and their lips met. Arnulf responded with a will. Once again, emerging from the clinch, Esor regarded Arnulf. He returned the gaze: eye to eye. He was caught and then captured entirely.
The eyes held him, filled his vision, becoming boundless. He was intoxicated, helpless. He could not move, his body ridged. Mind disengaged. She rose. Arnulf remained staring, body stiff, unseeing.
“I have him,….I, I like him.”
“Prepare his mind. We have the host, it was to be for Sealgair, his animal ages.”
“Cannot we preserve him?”
“Foolish, his mind disturbs.”
“This might not make the other leave.”
“We have read him, it will. We have planted fear.”
“It is not fair!”
“Beware of sympathy, would you become as he will? Fair, you speak of fairness? We spend our lives, row on row, sleeping. We live the lives of herd animals so our minds will not wither. Fair?”
“Is it his fault?”
“Is it not! Our ancestor fled from their squalling minds. Minds that fixed us in alien form by their arrogant phylomorphism. We must protect ourselves, the few that are left.
A grinding headache preluded Ferns return to full awareness. Rising out of a furred darkness in which blobs of violent colour swam like chromakeyed fried eggs, he lifted his head and groaned.
Dubhag was pouring broth into a wooden bowl. He brought it to the prostrate man. “Eat!:’ He growled.
It was full daylight. Fern put his hand over his eyes. They felt like hot peeled grapes. “You bastard!” He groaned. Rolling over, he staggered to his feet and lurched in an attempt at menace on the other man.
“Eat your soup.” said Dubhag. He easily evaded a weak blow and left the hut.
He lurched over to a bucket of water in the corner and plunged in his head. It splashed. soaking his coveralls freezing . The shock gave him relief. Flicking wet hair out of his eyes, he could think.
From outside came the dull thunk of an axe. Dubhag was cutting firewood.
Fern pulled his gun from the long plastic scabbard built into his pack. He keyed in what he guessed to be the hunters weight and primed the gun. Leaning on it for support he went to the door. The hunter had his back turned. He was splitting a log. Fern shot him.
He dragged the unconscious man into the hut. He was to heavy to lift. He dealt with the body as he in his turn had been dealt with. He assembled his kit and left.
Fern had been climbing for about half an hour and his head throbbed with new violence. The white and black world rippled like water washed glass.
Footsteps other than his own percolated into his mind. He raised his head and stopped. Down the gully came Esor and she was leading a Donn, docile on a rope halter.
He shook his head, concussion can induce hallucinations. He waited, leaning on his gun. The image did not go away.
The strange pair stopped a few metres away. “Here is your Donn, now go away!” Tears sparkled in the corners of her eyes.
He called a weak: “Wait.” as she turned and retraced her steps. Suddenly his headache expanded, exploding upwards like air bubbles in water. Fern collapsed and knew no more.
Fern came-to for the second time in as many hours to an urgent nudging at his midsection. His hand reached out in a semiconscious languor to stop the interruption to the comfortable slumber of exposure. His hand met a furry muzzle. The surprise roused him. He was cold suddenly. Pulling himself to hands and knees from a nest of snow, he raised his head. His eyes met those of a Donn, magnificently antlered.