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Linnea lounged, half-dreaming, on a grassy hillock above her peacefully browsing herd. Far outside the normal traffic lanes, her quiet mountain aerie held nothing to attract wandering tourists.
A storm crackled and growled just beyond Baldur's Peak, its erratic flashes illuminating the brooding sky. Near the end of the day, she was looking forward to a relaxing steam bath, followed by a leisurely meal and a quiet evening by the fire with her books and music.
When the flyer smashed into the other side of the peak, the impact shattered the afternoon's drowsy silence. Since the Kingdom of Phasga's ski resorts lay in the other direction, far beyond the distant Dragons' Teeth Range, she could only assume some poor soul had strayed off course.
Knowing her duty, Linnea jumped to her feet. She whistled up the dogs and led Daegal, the herd's curly-horned senior buck, from the pasture. By the time she penned up the last of the goats, purple twilight was lengthening over the meadow. The coming dark would be moonless and she knew she'd better find the flyer's occupants fast, it was on nights like this the Barren Wolves liked to run.
With a quick glance over her shoulder at the stone-colored clouds tumbling across the peak, Linnea headed into the hut with a sigh. Shucking her light sandals, shorts and loose silk shirt, she donned her quilted leggings and insulated top. After tucking her heavy braids into a leather cap, she laced up her felt-lined climbing boots, and stamped her feet against the slate tiles. Then she reached down a glow-light from the massive shelf above the drowsingceramic stove and shook it into life. Slinging the heavy emergency pack across her broad shoulders, she shrugged on her waterproof cloak, then, closely followed by the three dogs, she carefully latched the ironbound door behind her.
At twenty, Linnea would never be accounted a beauty. Even for the Ursi tribe, her looks were nothing special, but the power of her healing hands was second to none, and her broad countenance and golden-brown eyes held a charm and gentleness lacking in her more aggressive sisters. At six foot three, she was small in comparison to her magnificent four-hundred-pound mother, but she'd find no lack of masculine attention at the upcoming autumn gathering, her relative puniness and homely looks notwithstanding. Mating and motherhood held little appeal for Linnea, but her solitary summer in the upper pasture would soon be over and she couldn't put off the inevitable much longer.
That her hair was midnight black rather than the much-prized red seemed to matter not a whit to her suitors. In fact, just this past spring, several neighboring males had sent messages to Aase that they found her youngest daughter's freckled features and stocky frame most attractive.
Always sure of a friendly welcome, a hearty meal and a comfortable sleeping pallet, itinerant peddlers often visited Aase's great stone keep. Listening to their colorful tales, the enthralled Linnea had oft imagined Seira's far-flung lands, exotic peoples and glittering oceans. Yearning to taste the bustle and excitement of the exotic cities below her isolated mountain home, she'd picture the great interplanetary ships, dancing stars and cloudy galaxies of outer space, and something would tug at her insides. But her chances of ever leaving Aase's mountain kingdom were almost nil.
Isolated by preference, the Ursi tribe concentrated their efforts on their legendary herds and, by tradition, their only outside contact was with those who came to them. Their huge goats' fabulous silken hair and the gourmet cheeses made from their sweet milk formed the basis of the Ursi's incredible wealth. However, Linnea's people never touched money or soiled their hands with financial transactions. Any traveling or trading was done on their behalf by trusted Seiran representatives, whom the Ursi would never demean by calling servants.
Much smaller in stature than their massive employers, the exuberant lowland men intrigued Linnea as much as they repelled her sisters. While she found their pale eyes and golden faces difficult to read, their ready wit and bold impudent ways amused her. To her regret, the Seiran women avoided social contact outside their own kind. Veiled whenever they left their houses in the keep's foreign compound, they kept strictly to themselves, and they and their silent children remained a mystery.
The mountain wind's whipping howl and icy raindrops' spatter against her face brought Linnea back to the matter at hand. Striding across the meadow toward Baldur's Peak, she sensed rather than saw her three massive guard-hounds running beside her, faithful noses at the ready and trusting her to tell them what was needed. Raising the glow-light high above her head, she peered into the gathering gloom. Just as she set foot on the stony upward path, she heard them, and the hair lifted at the back of her neck. The normally silent Barren Wolves' eerie song could mean only one thing. They had found their prey.
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Saundby