The International Year Of The Beast

Chapters 19, 20 & 21

Following a skiing accident in Alaska Devin is rescued by a mysterious race of people whom are like no other except one - his brother Vincent

Chapter Nineteen

Trudging behind her family, Radiance felt as though she were walking toward her doom. That this day had come at all was impossible to comprehend for so long she had waited, yet if only it wasn’t to The Best of Everything to whom she was being escorted, a man she had never met, but rather toward Fleeting Time her one true love, the man to whom she had sworn her allegiance years ago in secret together when they had fallen in love. Heavily, Radiance sighed and her feet felt wooden as she walked in silence through the snow. Her parents had explained the problem; The Best of Everything and Swallow Tail had eloped together but they would be returned, and when they were then she should marry The Best of Everything without delay, and Swallow Tail would be given in marriage to The Sin of Pride.
If only the laws of the ancestors could move with the times, just as the clan had been forced to do. Radiance knew full well that Fleeting Time’s betrothed, The Beauty of a Parable was in love with A Moment In Time. So many hearts could be freed from grief if only the laws were to be altered. Arranged marriages were strong true, but only in the face of obedience. If a wife did not disobey her master she would remain well cared for, but should she dare to voice an opinion or be led astray by true love then she would be brought up before the elders, judgement passed and she would be punished, sometimes as severely as being stoned to death. So how would a woman dare to bear her heart when her life was at risk? Sometimes Radiance wondered if she dared to be the forerunner. Her love for Fleeting Time was overwhelming, and a life without him was no life at all. Still he had begged her not to tell, not only for the sake of her life but also for the dishonour it would bring upon her family. Not altogether ousted from the community but not altogether accepted among them either. For there was always that raw hostility lurking toward them as being ones to have produced a traitor.
That’s how her life would be now that The Best of Everything had absconded with another woman. There would always be that element of doubt that at any given opportunity The Best of Everything would seek the whereabouts of Swallow Tail and vice versa. Her father, The Tongue of the Bear and his family would be forced into exile on the merits of his son in law, as would Prowling Cat and his family and the same with Merry Wolf too. Yet great distances would need to come between these families so that never would any of them come into contact again. From what Radiance knew of Merry Wolf, her father and Prowling Cat, this would grieve them very much, they had grown up together, were like brothers. Many ripples were produced when one of the clan refused to conform to their laws.
Still, deep down Radiance understood why her husband to be and Swallow Tail had eloped, perhaps they had been the braver ones, or perhaps with The Best of Everything being brought up outside the clan his ways had been the greater impact on her and she had hankered for things she had never known to the extent that her courage had been amplified and Swallow Tail had left the mountain for life in the city.
Life in the city…Radiance mooned over such a possibility. Her knowledge had been limited until helpers had arrived on the mountain bringing with them stories and photographs of city life. It sounded like another world to Radiance and she wished to see it with all her heart. If she were Swallow Tail having all that at her disposal nothing on earth would make her return to the mountain, and Radiance hoped Swallow Tail knew that. Unfortunately, Radiance also knew that family ties bind, and Swallow Tail would in time regret her departure and return to visit her family and at such a time her parents would act against her, unless she was a mother by then, and hopefully she would be, or she would be forced to marry The Sin of Pride and never be allowed to leave the mountain again.
“What is it that grieves you so?” Radiance hadn’t noticed her mother falling into step alongside her. “I’ve seen the way you look at Fleeting Time, your father is unaware of this, and it is in the past now. You know our laws, what you want you cannot have and what is destined for you will be returned. The Best of Everything has much to learn and with you as his wife, you will be permitted to teach him, since we will be forced to live away from the clan.” Her mother seemed sad at this prospect, and Radiance knew she would miss all her relatives among the clan as much as her father would.
“It doesn’t have to be that way.” Radiance blurted. Her mother looked on dismayed. “It does and you know it. The elders will not change the laws of a lifetime just to suit a few fleeting hearts. Arranged marriages are as old as time here, and they are for the good of all. Strong children are produced, when was the last time you witnessed the birth of a weakling? Even when mother’s die in childbirth does not the child always live? You should not judge the way of the ancestors. They knew what it was they were doing when they set this law for us. “
“None of them could have loved.” Radiance whispered defiantly. She did not want her father to hear what she was saying.
“Love does not even come near.” Her mother snapped. “What is left when love has gone? I’ll tell you, shall I? A wandering heart that has what? Dissatisfaction, frustration, anger…love is blind and when the veil is lifted you see what is really so. A couple totally incompatible causing unrest among the children. Radiance, do you think you are the only one to have forsaken the one your heart leans toward?”
Radiance looked up sharply and caught the wistful look in her mother’s eyes before she had time to disguise the fact. “You too!” Radiance cried with disbelief. “But you and father seem so well suited?”
“Now we are, not so in the beginning. We both had eyes for someone else. We found being married to another very difficult for the first year of our married life. There were arguments and I was punished often for insolence.”
“By father!” Radiance was shocked.
“No, no…not by your father, but his family, his father…my father…they did not like the way I spoke with my husband. Your father was counselled…made to stand his ground with me…it was not something he enjoyed since we were both dissatisfied with the marriage arrangement. He felt for me, understood how I was feeling and could not chastise me for something he was feeling also.”
“Who…” Radiance began eager to know whom her parents had loved other than each other.
Her mother shook her head. “Don’t ask, Radiance. Its best you do not know. It was a long time ago now.”
“Did anyone know?”
“No, we were fortunate in the way that we were never ostracised from the clan, but our hearts were broken daily when we came face to face with the ones that we loved. And they too suffered. Time healed and only a fondness remains for those ones now, but seldom a day goes by when either your father or I do not wonder what our lives may have been had we been permitted to marry the ones we truly loved.”
“That’s so sad, mother.” Radiance hugged her mother hard and a lump formed in her throat as her eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t fret, Radiance, it was a long time ago. But you see, because of that I know, I understand that your heart is not with The Best of Everything, but rather with Fleeting Time. This is why it will be good for us when we are forced to leave the clan and live far from here. You will in time, be happy that you did not have to see Fleeting Time every day. Believe me, my daughter, your heart will mend sooner when denied that sight.”
“The laws should be changed.” Radiance replied forcefully. “Its not right how they are! The clan try to move with the times, yet they stick to this rule, its not right!”
“Maybe, but it works. You have listened to the stories of the helpers, have you not? And are they not amazed to find that the word divorce is alien among the clan? Where they come from people move in and out of marriages as the seasons come and go, children know not where they are or to whom they belong. Our ways may seem unacceptable to the grieving heart, but in the long run they prove the wisest way of all. You must learn to forget Fleeting Time, and make The Best of Everything your husband, stay loyal to him and God will bless the fruitage of the belly with sons and daughters that will bring you far more happiness than you can imagine.”
Radiance went to speak but her mother silenced her. “Sh now, we are approaching Prowling Cat’s domain. We must not let him overhear such talk and everything I have told you today remains here, right?” Her mother touched her chest, signifying her heart. “What you know can never be discussed with any other but me. Do I have your word on that? If this was ever leaked out many problems could arise from it, not to mention suspicion.” Radiance understood. “You have my word, Mother. I promise.” Her mother relaxed. “Thank you.”
Together they walked into the cave of Prowling Cat, her father welcomed him warmly and Indigo Sky begged them sit and have refreshments after their long trek. Only One noticed something different about the other woman. “You have had the child?”
“Yes, yesterday. She is here. Look!” Indigo Sky moved to one side and revealed a new baby daughter sleeping peacefully in furs upon the floor of the cave. “Isn’t she adorable!”
Only One crooned over the child. “She is that. Have you named her?”
Indigo Sky looked toward her husband. By tradition it was the head of the family that announced the name of each new child and the two women waited until the men had finished speaking before Indigo Sky caught her husband’s eye and asked that he tell their guests the child’s name. Prowling Cat smiled. “I am forgetting myself. Let me introduce the newest member of our family.” He walked to where the baby lay, bent and picked her up and cradled her in his arms. “Everyone, meet The Hand of Friendship, who was born yesterday morning.”
“Ah,” The Tongue of the Bear reasoned. “You hope by presenting such a name to the elders they will feel less inclined to oust you from the community when your son is returned to us?” Tongue in cheek, Prowling Cat nodded. “Is it so obvious?” Everyone laughed.
In the wake of laughter an uncomfortable silence descended over the two families, until The Tongue of the Bear sighed heavily. “Tis a sorry state we find ourselves in. When your son returns and marries my daughter we will be forced to leave the clan. We have been nomads by choice a long time, but for you and your family this will be hard, I fear. You have many little ones and the wild way is not easy to follow.”
“Why is that?” Prowling Cat asked suddenly. “I mean why is it that you and your family chose to be nomads? I have always wondered.” The Tongue of the Bear looked toward his wife who looked away, and Radiance realised she had seen this happen between them every time that particular question was brought up, and only now understood why. They had chosen to be nomads rather than be faced daily with the other people they had once loved. Wandering the mountains had been preferable to being faced with a grieving heart. In the silence that followed Prowling Cat apologised, and all were surprised, and most of all, Only One and Radiance when The Tongue of the Bear announced, “No, don’t apologise. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to disclose the facts. Since we are to be ousted from the community at any rate, you may as well know.” Only One’s gaze rose to meet her husband's. Radiance noticed that her mother’s hands shook and the need to comfort her was overwhelming, but Radiance knew she must not, or her father would know that she knew and would hardly believe how new that knowledge was to her.
“A long time ago…” her father began haltingly. “My wife and I were in love with other people. Our arranged marriage was at first arduous and on a day to day basis we found being around those we had affection for difficult, and so after three years we chose the nomad life, and it has suited us since.” Prowling Cat and Indigo Sky looked grieved by the news, they knew it happened from time to time, but names were only ever mentioned in whispered circles and never had either of them heard mention of The Tongue of the Bear and Only One ever. They were stunned. “We did not know.” Prowling Cat stated, shocked.
“No one knew.” The Tongue of the Bear replied. “And those that we loved remained quiet. They too married others and found life difficult, but in the end we, all of us, formed a basic friendship with those we were forced to marry, and we have been happy have we not, my wife?” Only One nodded. “Yes, my husband.” There was much she could have added, but it would do no good, so with a whispered sigh she said no more, yet that sigh alone spoke of everything she did not say, and her husband nodded his silent agreement. “It has been hard.” He whispered at last. “But the ways of the clan are always for the better good.”
“Father, if I may be permitted to speak?” Only One looked up startled as she heard her daughter speak. Her heart hammered painfully, her eyes accused, ‘you promised!’ But Radiance was not about to speak about her mother’s love for another, but rather that of her own.
“What is it, Radiance?” The Tongue of the Bear sat down amid his family and friends, the way had been wearisome, the life of a nomad beginning to tell on his tired old bones more often of late.
Summoning her courage from the depths of her heart Radiance could not look into her father’s eyes as she spoke woodenly, incredulous that she was doing so at all, amid Prowling Cat and his family, but in a way it was their business also. “I too love another.” She whispered at last and dared to look up into her father’s eyes to blurt appealingly. “Oh, father I love him so much!”
Shock outlined the faces of every member sitting near and her father’s features became incensed with fury. “Radiance!” He growled as he rose to his feet and strode outside of the cave. “Come!” Her heart in her mouth, Radiance followed her father unsteadily, she was frightened but relieved to have unburdened herself of her terrible secret. For a moment her father looked formidable as he stood with his back to her gazing out at the snowy mountainside, and suddenly his shoulders slumped and she heard a cry of anguish leave his lips followed by mutterings of the Yeti at such a pace that it was impossible to comprehend and she ran to his side holding his arm and beseeching him with eyes that begged forgiveness to speak with her. Finally his glazed eyes focused and he saw her again and instead of everything she might have imagined he enfolded her in his arms surprising her to stillness. “Radiance, my daughter, my firstborn, what is this you say? Has my past settled itself upon you, have you been haunted by the unfaithfulness of my heart? Oh, Radiance! Such grief will you know. I wish, I wish…”
“Father, it’s alright. I understand the way of things. I know my place is to marry The Best of Everything. I will not bring dishonour upon our family by refusing him. I promise!”
“It wouldn’t matter if you did. In that, The Best of Everything has been the forerunner…” The Tongue of the Bear’s voice trailed away, he was thinking, and thinking fast and furiously. Radiance could see from his eyes that he was thinking of things dismissing them, thinking new things, wondering about them and the hope rose in her heart and fell again with everything he thought of and dismissed. Finally he seized her by the arms and looked down into her eyes. “Maybe…I don’t know if it is possible… but maybe…listen…” And what he disclosed made her heart rejoice!

*** *** ***

Over the last couple of weeks Swallow Tail and Darren had become increasingly claustrophobic about living in the tunnels, and they wandered aimlessly between the hub and their chamber wondering how to break the news without seeming ungrateful. The community had bent over backwards to make them feel welcome and every need they’d had was met with as much provision as was possible. Still, with their last wish, the wish to leave they could not summon the strength to impart, for everyone had been too kind.
So they wandered about, being polite taking part in conversations, looking for ways in which they might broach the subject of their leaving, though in truth they had not a clue where they might go after they had left the tunnels. Alaska was an option but one that neither could face, the only possibility would be to live a similar life to Will down in the valley, but Swallow Tail already missed her family and would like to live closer to them. Darren knew that, but he was doubtful that having made the break, that this would be possible. If she returned to the clan, her family would be ousted from the community so in effect going back to join them would make matters worse. If only they could use Catherine’s apartment for a while, they would then learn to be free of the ties that bind learn to stand up for themselves and in time return to the clan making it plain that their return was nothing more than a visit and then everyone could be happy in the circumstances.
During their wanderings, Swallow Tail and Darren stumbled upon a chamber filled with children and smiled as they approached. Usually the children were welcoming, but today something appeared to be amiss. One little boy was crying, another was trying to comfort him, several others stood around not knowing what to do, or what to say, and Swallow Tail’s heart went out to them. “What’s the matter?” She asked as she stepped inside the chamber. All eyes turned to her, and their reply of ‘nothing’ was not unexpected.
“I can see that something is wrong. She knelt down by the distraught boy. “What’s wrong? Have you hurt yourself?” She noticed he held a pair of spectacles in one hand and she reached for them. “Have you broken your glasses? Is that it?” The boy shook his head and replaced the spectacles to his face, where his tears appeared magnified through the lens. “Please tell me what’s wrong?” Swallow Tail begged. Darren stayed within the entrance unsure what to do until he had an idea. “You boys, can you show me where the abyss is?”
“Can’t go there.” He was told. “Dangerous place.”
“I know that. I also know I must stay away from it, but if I don’t know where it is how do I know if I’m staying away from it?” The boys shrieked with laughter, that was logic anyway. “We’ll show you which direction it’s in, then you won’t go that way, okay?” Darren agreed and Swallow Tail was soon left with the bespectacled child and the one that comforted him.
“So what’s the problem, huh? Maybe I can help?”
The other child replied. “Eric’s sister died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Swallow Tail cried. “You poor thing.” Immediately she reached out to enfold the grieving boy against her. His body seemed cold in her arms he was indeed grief stricken.
“It was a long time ago.” Eric hiccupped. “But I miss her so!”
Swallow Tail didn’t know what to say. So many questions flew to mind, all of them she dismissed until finally she prompted. “What was her name?”
“Ellie.” Swallow Tail froze. She knew this story, Father had enlightened her the day Vincent and Catherine’s baby had been born. Again many questions flew to mind, but none could she voice. Eric seemed though to understand. “Its okay, really. I know you don’t know what to say, no one does. And usually I can forget about it, it’s just…just…” and he started to cry heartily once more. Bewildered Swallow Tail looked to his companion for answers and was happy to hear the child reveal, “Its when her name is mentioned. Most times Eric can forget, but when someone mention’s the name Ellie, it upsets him all over again.” Eric nodded. “Can’t bear to hear her name. Reminds me how much I miss her.” Swallow Tail was troubled by this omission. The naming ceremony of Vincent and Catherine’s baby was later in the week, they assumed Eric would be delighted to know they had named their baby after his sister, but it sounded as though nothing could be further from the truth. A predicament was forced upon Swallow Tail. “Why did someone mention her name?” She asked hoping no one had leaked the baby’s name and it had reached Eric’s ears.
“Some kids were talking about that time…you know…when the disease killed people…” the other child told her. “They mentioned Ellie, and Eric started to cry.”
“Where I come from, we believe that new babies carry the spirits of those that die. Its possible that your sister is alive again in someone else now, Eric.” Hoping to pacify him, the horrified look that formed on his face was unexpected. “No!” He shouted. “That’s not true! It can’t be!” He forced himself from her arms and stood shaking by the far wall staring at her as if she was some kind of monster.
Swallow Tail tried to make amends. “But then that is only the belief of my people, it probably doesn’t happen among those that do not look like me.” Eric was shaking his head. “It won’t happen anywhere. The spirit is the life of a person not something separate. When we die our spirit dies that is our life force, Ellie said so!”
Swallow Tail realised she had said the wrong thing. There was no arguing with the dead. Slowly she nodded. “Then your sister was very wise. I have to admit to disbelieving that thought anyway. It has holes in it for one thing.” Eric cocked his head enquiringly and Swallow Tail went on, “If new babies carried the spirits of the dead then where did the first spirits come from, and if those first spirits were created by God, then why doesn’t he continue to create more for each new baby? There’s never convincible answers to these questions, so I think I prefer what Ellie told you.” Deep down Swallow Tail didn’t really believe that, the beliefs of her family were deeply ingrained but she hoped to pacify the child enough to cheer him up. In time it appeared to work. “Ellie knew everything!” Eric told her proudly. “She was very bright, and she loved me!” Tears squeezed under his lashes again and his lips wobbled, until Swallow Tail told him, “Then she wouldn’t want to be saddened by your sorrow. She’d want you to remember the good times you had together and to live life to the full for her. I know you will always miss her but deep inside she is a part of you that no one can ever take away. You must strive to make her proud, Eric in all you do. Imagine that she can see everything and that everything you do is to make her happy with you.”
“Vincent said something like that before.” Eric told her. “When someone last mentioned her name and I got upset.”
“So let me get this right, it upsets you when you hear her name mentioned?” Tears in his eyes Eric nodded. “I like it that no one here is named Ellie, I’ve always been afraid that someone might move in down here called that, and she wouldn’t be as nice as my sister, or even if she was, to hear her name mentioned would make me think its my sister they are referring to, and that would make me sad all over again, cos it isn’t.”
“I understand.” Swallow Tail told him and she knew from that what she must do. “Will you be okay now?” Eric nodded. “Thanks for listening.” He smiled. Swallow Tail had a feeling he would indeed perk up now, and it wouldn’t be the last time he would have a set back like that, but she knew that those set backs would come far more often if Vincent and Catherine named their daughter after his sister and she owed it to all concerned to tell them. Still, knowing it and doing it were two separate things, and she put it off right up until the day of the naming ceremony when she knew, for Eric’s sake, she could put it off no more.
“Catherine?” Though the former animosity of Vincent’s wife had long dissipated, Swallow Tail still felt nervous in the other woman’s presence.
“Hi, come in!” Catherine was changing her daughter into a beautiful gown of gold and white lace and silk and Swallow Tail had never seen anything so beautiful. As Catherine busied herself with the task, she chatted about the baby, how she had grown in the three weeks since her birth how beautiful her hair was, so like her father’s and how pleased she was that her daughter’s eyes remained startling blue. “What do you think, Swallow Tail, do you think her eyes will stay this colour? Oh, I do hope so!” Catherine returned her daughter to the safety of her crib.
“Swallow Tail?” Catherine suddenly noticed the other woman hadn’t spoken since entering the chamber. “Is something wrong?” Swallow Tail was staring at the baby and not trusting her voice she nodded then she peered around the chamber looking for Vincent. Guessing her intentions, Catherine replied, “Vincent just stepped out, did you wish to speak with him?” Again Swallow Tail nodded and Catherine frowned, what was going on?
“Where’s Darren?” Catherine asked as her mind raced. Was there something between Vincent and Swallow Tail after all?
“I left him with Father. Will Vincent be long?”
Now Catherine really grew worried. “Why do you want to see him?” She challenged warily.
Immediately Swallow Tail sensed Catherine’s hostility had returned and she became uneasy, but what she had to say couldn’t wait another moment longer. “I need to speak to both of you.”
“You can tell me now!” Catherine snapped.
“No, I’d rather wait until Vincent comes back.”
An ominous feeling drifted over Catherine. “Your both returning to the mountain aren’t you? That’s what all this is about, isn’t it? You’re returning to Alaska and you chose today of all days to break the news!”
“How did you know?” Swallow Tail was surprised, for she and Darren had told no one that they wanted to leave.
Catherine’s heart lurched in her chest. “Its true then?”
“What’s true?” Vincent’s voice drifted over to where the two women stood glaring at one another. Catherine turned to face him and launched her accusations. “Your plan backfired, Vincent. Swallow Tail has let the cat out of the bag. So when were you going to tell me, huh? Straight after we had named our daughter perhaps…blah blah blah…we name our daughter Ellie, oh and by the way, while you are all gathered here, you should know that Swallow Tail and I are returning to Alaska.”
“WHAT!” Vincent and Swallow Tail cried together, the latter adding, “No, Catherine, you’ve got it all wrong, its not Vincent and I that are returning to Alaska. Darren and I are.”
“You and Darren are leaving?” Vincent asked stunned. “But I thought you were happy here.”
“Swallow Tail! Why have you told them?” Darren’s voice came from the entranceway. “I thought we were going to wait awhile?”
“I didn’t mean to, Catherine assumed.”
“No I didn’t, I thought you were leaving with Vincent.”
“With Vincent?” Darren eyed his wife and Vincent with suspicion. “What is it you haven’t told me? Is that why you wanted to wait to tell them so you could stay longer than you made out you wanted to do?” Darren cried angrily.
Amid the accusations the baby started to cry.
“No, No, No!” Swallow Tail cried, looking from one accusing face to another.
“What’s going on in here?” Father’s voice loomed above the crying baby. “I can hear the commotion from my chamber!”
“Sorry, Father.” All chorused together.
“Apology accepted, now an explanation if you would please?” Father looked around the sea of faces in hopeful expectation.
Catherine sighed. “There seems to be a misunderstanding. Swallow Tail came to see Vincent and I assumed by what she said, that she and Vincent were returning to the mountains…”
“To the mountains? Vincent, is this true?”
“No, Father.” Vincent sighed heavily.
“If I may continue?” Catherine asked wearily. Father nodded.
“It appears I was wrong but we still do not know why Swallow Tail wanted to speak with Vincent.” Now Catherine looked toward the other woman expecting to be enlightened. Swallow Tail, said a silent prayer and hoped she wouldn’t make any more of a mess of things than she already had…although…now that the cat was out of the bag so to speak…” Actually, Darren and I were thinking of leaving…but that can wait…for now, what I wanted to tell you was…” And finally she proceeded to tell them of her meeting with Eric several days before and what had happened.
“That’s terrible!” Catherine announced at length. “Poor Eric. Of course we can’t name our daughter Ellie now.” On cue Mary popped her head around the entrance. “There you all are! We’re waiting everyone is gathered for the naming ceremony, and you’re all missing. What’s the problem? Anything I can help with?”
Vincent and Catherine looked at one another, seemed to communicate without words and together began to speak. “Actually, Mary there is something you can do for us…” They laughed and Catherine let Vincent take over. “Is it possible that we could name our daughter after the child you lost?” They had discussed this at one time, before deciding on the name of Ellie.
Mary stared open mouthed at them not knowing what to say, or why they had left it so late to find a name. Catherine explained. “We had chosen a name, but have learned it is inappropriate, and it has dawned on us, that you have been a mother to us all, and what better honour to you would there be but choosing the name of your heart, if you would indeed agree to that?”
“But you don’t even know what it is.” Mary told them looking dumbfounded. “I’ve told no one.”
“Would it grieve you too much for us to use it?” Vincent asked her. Mary smiled, “No, quite the contrary, I would be proud for you to use her name, but will you like it?”
“We can only know that if you tell us.” Vincent smiled. Mary smiled too and stepped closer taking his big furry hand in hers and tears bedimmed her eyes as she smiled at Catherine. “I named her Jessica, after my great aunt.” Mary looked at the couple hopefully. “Do you like it? It means God sees.”
“I think its beautiful, Mary.” Catherine replied honestly.
“So do I. Thank you, Mary.” Vincent told her sincerely.
Mary beamed. “You’re welcome. So why did you need a new name at this late stage?” Quickly they outlined the reasons and Mary smiled. “You know you could still use the name Ellie, but so Eric doesn’t realise you could call your daughter Eleanor, it would be the lengthened form of the name Ellie.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Catherine replied and Mary could tell she was undecided now.
“Well, I’ll go tell everyone there'll be a short delay and you two can decide what her name will be.” Mary told them clasping their hands in hers before leaving. It was true they were now undecided and Father knowing this bade Swallow Tail and Darren leave them to give them some space and a few minutes to discuss the problem in private. When everyone had left Vincent turned to Catherine. “What are you thinking, my love?”
“I’m thinking I don’t want to disappoint Mary.” Catherine replied honestly. Vincent agreed. “So am I.”
They tossed the names around there were others already chosen as second and third names and they knew that whichever way they placed the names they had to sound just right.
“Jessica means God sees, and Eleanor means…just a minute….” Catherine reached for her book of baby names and looked up Eleanor. “Its Greek for light. Hm, God sees light?” She suggested with a grin.
“Along with our other chosen names that would be what?” Vincent asked and Catherine consulted the book again.
“Joyous song and pretty for one and the other isn’t mentioned, maybe that just means what it is.”
“So we have God sees, light, joyous song, pretty and sky. Well we can’t really make anything with those words especially as joyous song and pretty have to remain together since they represent two syllables of the same name so I think the best we can do is agree which way round we want the names to go. Are we agreed that Jessica be the first?” Eagerly, Catherine nodded. “And Eleanor be the second?” Again Catherine agreed. “And the other two as they were?” Bright eyed Catherine was of like mind. “In that case, let’s go name our daughter.” Vincent offered Catherine his hand and she took it up, rose from her seat and together they walked toward the crib where their baby daughter lay. Vincent let go of Catherine’s hand to scoop his daughter up into his arms and Catherine slipped her hand through the crook of his arm. “Let’s go, my love.” He told her with smiling eyes of love and tenderness and together they walked toward the chamber that had been bedecked with ribbons and roses and where all their friends awaited for their daughter’s naming ceremony. A few minutes later a hush fell among the congregation as Father announced; “And we give the child a name…” To which Vincent added, “ We name our daughter, Jessica Eleanor Caroline Mary Sky.” Catherine gasped and her eyes flew to his with wonder in their expression and he whispered, “don’t ask, it just slipped in.” She had no idea that Mary was to be one of the names, but in all honesty it had found its rightful place, for later when everyone wanted to know why they had chosen those particular names Vincent told them, “Caroline for Catherine’s mother, Mary for the only mother I have ever known, and Sky for the mother that gave birth to me.” And Catherine had to agree that Vincent had chosen well, for Mary was exquisitely happy, and they knew they could never have done a finer thing for her.
“I’m so happy.” She told them as they returned to their chamber later that day. “You have used my dear daughter’s name and mine as well. How can I ever thank you?”
“You already have, Mary.” Vincent hugged her close. “And it’s us who should be thanking you. Jessica is such a lovely name.”
“Yes.” Mary could say no more as memories crowded in and she made her excuses to leave. She would return, soon…little would keep her away from their chamber and whereas the name of his sister would have caused young Eric misery, naming their daughter after Mary’s lost child changed Mary’s disposition almost as though she believed as did Swallow Tail that the spirit of her lost child had finally been given life.

Chapter Twenty

“Are you absolutely sure about this, Vincent?” Father asked for the umpteenth time. He was looking directly at his son who preferred not to look at his parent as he packed some things into a bag. “I told you, we must. Besides, now that Swallow Tail is with child there will be no risk. The clan cannot fail to allow us to return back here.”
“But to lie to them, that’s what I can’t understand. To have them believe that you and Swallow Tail are married and that the child is yours, Vincent I’m dismayed that you could even go along with such a ruse!”
“Swallow Tail believes it is best. I cannot argue with that. And for the sake of Radiance and The Sin of Pride returning is the least we can do. If either of them knew we had forsaken them for human beings they would be devastated. Far better that we let them believe that we, that is Swallow Tail and I eloped and were married then know they could never compete against others unlike them.” As Vincent spoke, he could not help feel grieved by what he was saying. His whole being cried out at the lie, he hated doing what he had set himself out to do, but Swallow Tail was adamant that there was no other way.
“Feelings, feelings!” Father ranted. “In smoothing the path for one couple you stumble the path of the others. I know for a fact that neither Catherine nor Darren are happy about this plan. You should be following your heart, proving that you love the ones that you married, proving that yes they are different, but even so they have accepted you both for who you are, what you are no matter those differences. Surely the clan cannot fail to be moved when they realise what your spouses have given up to be with people like you and Swallow Tail if appearance is what they are concerned with?”
“That should be keeping up appearances, Father. Which is what they are concerned with. I only know that to hear we married outside the clan would dismay and bring dishonour to those families concerned.”
Raggedly, Father sighed. “I don’t know what to make of anything anymore.”
“Then don’t even try, for unless you know the clan, which you don’t, there is no room for comments on the subject.” Vincent could have bitten off his tongue the moment he saw Father’s face, it was almost as though Vincent had struck him.
“I’m sorry, Father that was uncalled for.” Father waved his apology aside. “Nevertheless its probably true, I do not know the ways of the clan, but the more I hear of it, the more I am glad about that fact! If you ask me their laws are old fashioned and well… for want of a better word…foolish!”
“I agree.” They both looked up as Catherine came into the chamber with the babe in her arms. “But telling him so is like hitting your head against a brick wall. Has no one ever told him that the best preacher is the heart, and he is ignoring what his is saying if he pursues this foolish idea?” Vincent stared at Catherine understanding dawning with every second that passed even so, “I cannot listen to my heart, if I do then there will be no one but Darren to return with Swallow Tail, and that would speak untold volumes to the clan.”
Father fumed, “the clan, the clan, the clan…if I hear that word one more time I think I’ll…Arg!” He stormed from the chamber, only to return moments later. “Know what this year was meant to be? The International Year of the Beast, International, hear that? That is world wide…are they all as pigheaded as those in Alaska? If they are intent to step into our world they ought to be intent on taking on board our ways, and forced marriages are a thing of the past!” Father fell silent, and then went on, “At least in some societies…”
Vincent was quick to add, “Exactly, in some societies. Arranged marriages do still take place, Father and they work for the good of all.”
“So you believe they work then?” Father shrugged. “Alright, return your merry way, see if you are so convinced when they have you marry the woman betrothed to you.”
“They won’t do that!” Vincent challenged. “Besides I have a wife.”
“Who?” Father replied. “Who will you say you are married to when the gloves are on?”
“Off. You should have said off.”
“Off?” Father thought he was going mad.
“Yes, gloves are off, you said gloves are on.” Vincent grinned hoping to pacify his parent. It didn’t work, Father glared at him. “I know what I said, and why I said it. When the gloves are on, the fight commences does it not?” Vincent then understood, even so, “there will be no fight. Believe me.” He began explaining as though he were talking to children. “Swallow Tail says that once they accept that she and I are married they will leave us be. Radiance and The Sin of Pride can get on with their lives and we can get on with ours. There will be nothing to worry about.”
“Accept deceit.”
“I wish people would stop doing that.” Vincent sighed as Darren stepped into the chamber and gave his two cents worth.
“What?” Darren came to stand beside the others and looked all around. “I’m only being honest.”
Vincent never replied just zipped up his bag. Anything he’d forgotten to pack would have to remain behind, besides he’d only be gone a couple of days. “Well I’m done, is Swallow Tail ready?”
Darren could not bring himself to reply. He had left his wife in tears. They had had a massive argument, their first and if she continued with this foolish idea, it would be the first of many.
“Darren?” Vincent prompted. Darren shrugged. “Ask her.” Vincent sensed anger from the other man, and he’d sensed similar feelings and tension in Catherine for days as he and Swallow Tail had planned their trip away, and he’d sensed it in Father when he had entered his chamber not half an hour earlier.
“Look.” Vincent straightened and looked at each in turn. “I don’t want to do this. You’re right, it’s dishonest, but what other way is there?”
“You could try the truth.” Vincent swung around to face the entrance, another eavesdropper. “Devin! Are you alone?”
Grinning, Devin stepped back outside and returned with a small gathering of tunnel dwellers, all it seemed had been listening to the argument for none looked happy.
“Catherine’s right, Vincent.” Jamie stepped forth. “And you taught us right from wrong, so you know she’s right too. You should let your heart speak and not your head. What do you want to do?”
“It doesn’t come down to that. Don’t you see, how I feel is not what’s important here. We have to abide by laws and rules and allegiance of the clan, so as to make it right for those who were counting on us.” Vincent tried to explain but Jamie shook her head. “Its too late for that. Just leaving them broke their rules. You were already married but Swallow Tail’s marrying Darren broke their laws, not you. Vincent, you can be pardoned for marrying Catherine because it was done in ignorance of the clan and their laws and they can’t hold it against you. But you can’t make it right again by going back and pretending something is more than it is to lessen the blow. Already those betrothed to you will know of the desertion and they are not going to be any less grieved by a lie.”
“But they are!” Vincent groaned, but he should have expected that Swallow Tail would be the last to come along and join in the discussion after all it concerned her more than any.
“As long as Radiance and The Sin of Pride know that they lost us to one such as themselves that will lessen the hurt they will feel. Believe me I know what I’m talking about.” Swallow Tail looked around the sea of faces, begging them to understand. They couldn’t, and possibly never would.
“I’m ready to go if you are?” Vincent looked at Swallow Tail then turned to Catherine. “Five days, I promise then I’ll be back.” Catherine said nothing and when he bent to kiss her she evaded his mouth. Her eyes were filled with sorrow and he could tell she did not believe him. “Ten days, Catherine, just ten days.” He begged her to believe him, but she shook her head and turned her back on him to place their daughter in her crib. Vincent looked around the sea of sorrowful faces and taking a deep breath bid them farewell as he strode from the chamber with Swallow Tail close behind.

*** *** ***

“It is agreed then?” Merry Wolf looked around the circle of elders assembled in his cave and watched them shake their heads one by one. They were not entirely happy with the suggestion brought in by the Tongue of the Bear a few weeks earlier but Singing Jay wondered if on condition they would see it through. Their agreement would change the way of life for the entire clan and Merry Wolf was unsure where that would lead, even so it was exciting to the extreme. “On condition,” Singing Jay, reminded everyone. “Dependant upon the return of The Best of Everything and Swallow Tail. Whatever results from their return or news of them is dependant upon the change of this law. Are we thus agreed to that?” This time members of the elders slowly nodded, and then voiced their agreement before the written law was amended.
“Then if it goes as expected, our law on arranged marriages will forevermore cease. If it goes against, then the old laws remain intact.” Merry Wolf announced. No one would know the outcome now until someone found out what had become of The Best of Everything and Swallow Tail, and since the law was dependant on their return the helpers would be sent out to bring them back to the mountain.
“What do you wish for, Brother?” Singing Jay asked when he and Merry Wolf were alone later.
Merry Wolf shrugged. “It makes no difference to me, whatever happens I will still have lost my daughter. Old law new law, her dishonour weighs heavily upon my family. It is people like Radiance and The Sin of Pride who will benefit, or maybe not so much The Sin of Pride since I know he loves my daughter, but Radiance for a certainty.”
Singing Jay nodded, and then surprised his brother by adding, “Brave Deed my son is dissatisfied by our chosen mate for him. He too will be hoping that the new law is passed. I believe his heart leans toward Wishes, the only daughter of Tale Bearing and Little by Little, I am not sure if they are aware of this. I have said nothing. It is not my place to do so. Besides Brave Deed will be made to wed Eternal Blessings if the law does not change, but all of that is by the by. What do you truly believe has become of your daughter? Is she with The Best of Everything or with the fellow Darren?”
Merry Wolf shook his head. “It is a question I have asked myself a dozen times and more. I do not know. We can only wait and see. If the helpers find them then we shall know, till then…” Merry Wolf shook his head. “I simply do not know.”
“Then we wait. And whatever will be will be.”
The two men parted company and walked through the snow back to their own families, each lost in their own thoughts, each unsure of the future of the clan.

*** *** ***

Flying was a new experience for them both as were the stares they received from the other passengers, the amount of people that just had to use the bathroom, so as to file past and take a good long look at their strange companions. Vincent grew uncomfortable while Swallow Tail became highly amused by the attention they received. The airhostesses didn’t appear to know what questions to ask. “Something to eat, drink? Er, sorry…what do you eat and drink?” They posed the questions as they reached the aisle where Vincent and Swallow Tail sat side by side.
“Have you any tea?” Vincent asked and his melodious voice surprised the hostess so much she dropped the teapot spilling its contents over the floor. “I did have.” She laughed nervously. “Would coffee do?”
Vincent chuckled. “No. Water perhaps?”
“Water? Oh, yes, yes, water? Would you like ice with it?” Vincent said he would and the hostess hovered the tongs over the glass unsure of how much ice he would like. “Do you want it cold or very, very cold?” Vincent’s eyes shone with humour. “Cold will suffice thank you.”
“Are two ice cubes enough?”
“Quite enough, thank you.” Vincent took the glass and sipped, despite the newly added ice cubes the water was disgustingly warm and he almost gagged. “Maybe a few more will be good.” He offered the glass to the hostess, and she filled it to the brim with ice cubes.
Serving Swallow Tail didn’t go down too well either, in the absence of tea, and being pregnant and padded more so to look heavily pregnant Swallow Tail selected milk, from which came a long list of, “Would that be plain milk, strawberry milk, banana milk, chocolate milk, raspberry milk…” Swallow Tail laughed. “Stop, stop…any milk will do!” The hostess gave her chocolate milk feeling certain that Swallow Tail had probably never tasted chocolate in her life, come to that she had probably never tasted bananas either, and the woman wasn’t sure about the berries. “Tell you what…we have banana also, you’ll love it!”
After the hostesses had gotten the couple speaking with every word strained to be heard by the rest of the passengers other people dared to ask their questions. “So this your first flight then?” A man from the opposite aisle leaned over and tapped Vincent on the elbow. He almost died when Vincent turned and fully faced him. Those fangs, those teeth! The man shuddered.
“Yes, it is.” Vincent replied and his voice soothed the fellow as only his voice could setting the man’s anxieties at ease.
“Going home are we?”
Vincent knew he had to lie. His ‘death’ might have been taken as literal but suspicion no doubt would remain for some time. “Returning, yes. We went to visit friends in New York.”
“In New York you say?” Someone from the back called out. “People like you, were they?” Immediately Vincent knew where this was leading, they were expecting to hear him say he had gone to visit the city beast and his mind quickly thought of and dismissed ideas within the space of a second. “No, friends like you. Helpers.” He knew at once he had said the right thing as interest in that particular topic diminished. “So you’re returning to your family. I expect when you tell them all about New York they will want to see it also?”
“No doubt they will.” Vincent replied. He was quite enjoying the experience. Flying was one thing, actually talking to people, strangers was another, having them want to know about him quite another still, and being accepted without seeing fear in their eyes was exceptionally pleasing to Vincent. For the first time he began to see exactly what The International Year of the Beast had done for people like him.
“Can’t believe you people existed all this time and no one knew it.” One woman directed a statement toward them amid nods of agreement all round. “Well I guess their sincerity has put us in a good enough frame of mind for the next leg of our journey?” Swallow Tail told Vincent as they collected their luggage and made their way out of the airport. Will had been wired and they expected to find him waiting for them outside in his old ramshackle truck. Instead of the bright green and gold truck however, both were stunned when two strong hands grasped their arms on either side and tugged them away from the parking lot. “At last! Knew you’d surface eventually. We’ve been waiting for you!” Swallow Tail found herself faced with Travis King and one of his men and her happiness faded. She should have known the helpers would be looking for them even so she was married now…supposedly to Vincent, so there was nothing they could do. How wrong was that idea?

*** *** ***

“I’ll be gone ten days. Ten days! You heard him, Father, he promised!” Catherine stormed the length of her chamber and back again wearing out the already threadbare carpet worn thin from years of pacing by her husband’s moods.
“I know but, my dear, you have to allow for unforeseen occurrences. The weather for example, no one could have predicted that we’d get blizzards at this time of year, even in Alaska. Then it will take Vincent and Swallow Tail several days to climb up to where the clan reside and several days to climb back down again and it took Devin weeks, remember? Even using skiis.”
“He didn’t need an aeroplane before, did he? So if he really wanted to be home in time he’d have walked if he had to.” Catherine snapped unreasonably. ”But you know why he didn’t? Cos he never intended to in the first place!”
Darren though didn’t share Catherine’s beliefs. “Something’s wrong.” He too paced the chamber. “I know it. I can feel it. I’m surprised you can’t feel it too.” He knew that Vincent and Catherine shared a similar bond as he and his wife and his connection was telling him that Swallow Tail was afraid, very, very afraid. “I’m going out there.”
“Then I’m coming too!” Catherine twirled around looked at her daughter and became undecided. “Father would you?” Father shook his head. “No, and neither can you. Catherine you can’t take her with you and you can’t leave her alone. You are breast feeding her for one thing as if that isn’t enough and it’s too cold to take her up there. She’d die.”
“Their babies don’t die.” She argued.
“Probably cos they’re born to it, Catherine.” Darren reminded her. “Believe me its bitter on the mountain. Your daughter would die. You might die. The blizzards are relentless. You must stay here for your own good. I’ll find them, don’t worry we will all return.”
“Just send Vincent home to me, that’s all I ask.” Catherine told him. Darren nodded. “I promise, bye now. Be well.” He strode from the chamber to go to his own to pack. He’d wasted enough time already. Swallow Tail’s feelings had been slamming into him during the last few days. She needed him and he’d let her down enough already. Running to his chamber, he collected the things he would need and then began running down the tunnel towards the park entrance. His only hope was that there was a plane chartered for Alaska, otherwise he would get there any way he could, but he’d get there of that he was determined.

*** *** ***

“You what?” Merry Wolf could not believe his ears as Travis King imparted the news to him.
“I said we separated them. Look, your laws have flaws. Oh, I’m a poet and I didn’t know it.” Travis grinned. “You say one thing and do another. We just took matters out of your hands and separated them. There that’s done and dusted, you can all get on with your lives now.” Travis wiped his hands as if cleaning them of filth.
“I don’t understand?” Prowling Cat argued. “What do you mean about flaws in our laws?” Travis sighed heavily. “Like you don’t know. On the one hand you say elopers should be stoned, on the other you say they should be pardoned, on another you say their family should be ousted from your community on the other you say the elopers should be married off at first opportunity and separated, well we just took matters into our own hands and separated them for you. They’re lucky we didn’t decide to stone them instead.”
Prowling Cat was furious! “Who gave you that right?” Travis shrugged. “No one, gave us any rights, we just did what we thought none of you had the guts to do. He’s on one mountain and she’s on another. Its unlikely either will see the other again!”
“Its unlikely either will survive, you mean!” Merry Wolf cried angrily.
“Rubbish! They know how to survive, besides I know you’ll have their families go meet them and that’ll be the end of that. What we did, well you should thank us. It took the matter out of your hands and spared their lives into the bargain. We’ll tell you where we left them and the rest is up to you.”
“Get out, get out of my sight!” Merry Wolf’s temper exploded and he advanced menacingly toward Travis King who for the first time in his life felt a tremor of fear run through him faced with an angry clan member. He stumbled backward his eyes darting around at other members of the elders. They all looked equally menacing, perhaps they always had only he’d just never seen it before. Or maybe they truly were annoyed with what he’d done. “I only though we’d be helping.” He stammered giving the names of the two mountains he had left the couple on and adding, “they’ve only been on them a couple of hours. For the first few days we just kept them at different hotels till we decided what to do with them.”
“A couple of hours, you say? So they will be near the foot of these mountains?”
Travis King laughed. “The foot? No way! Took them up to the summits by chopper should take them all of a month to get down.”
”And you think that’s funny?” Merry Wolf spat. “I take it you did see that they were equipped for the harshness of those mountains?”
Travis had the gall to look amused. “Well…Swallow Tail is used to the cold…” “That may as be. What of The Best of Everything?”
Travis shrugged. “He’ll be okay, he’s as strong as an ox.”
Merry Wolf’s eyes glinted malice. “I hope for your sake my daughter survives or we will find you and take a life for a life. Go, you are no longer welcome here!” Travis shuddered. He thought they were joking. He’d known them so long they were like brothers to him. Suddenly he realised just how different they really were and he hesitated no longer. Bidding his men to leave they hurried down the mountain without a backward glance.
“We must find them.” Prowling Cat stated unnecessarily. “And soon. More blizzards are expected. I will help make up one team to locate my son.” Merry Wolf volunteered likewise to find his daughter, and soon a team of ten on each side was formed, but the way was long. The journey perilous and the temperatures deadly, there was no way on earth anyone could predict the outcome. Anything could happen.

Chapter Twenty-One

Vincent stared around him, everywhere he looked there was snow, and it was cold so very, very cold that his teeth chattered and his extremities were frozen. He couldn’t believe his predicament, it was too…too... farfetched, too disbelieving for his mind to take in. A few days ago he had taken his first ever flight upon an aeroplane and now… Well it had all happened so fast! He and Swallow Tail had stepped through the airport expecting to find ole’ Will awaiting them and instead had been spotted by the clan helpers and escorted to a van bundled inside and after a heated discussion between the men, he and Swallow Tail had been driven to different hotels and held hostage in chains no less and then days later to an airstrip with a gun in their backs they’d been forced to climb into a helicopter. Vincent found it almost beyond comprehension, then minutes later they were air born and Travis King was bundling them into some kind of kit, blindfolding Swallow Tail and telling them, “Count to ten and pull this cord…got it? If nothing happens pull this other one immediately, okay?”
“What’s supposed to happen?” Vincent remembered asking.
Travis had laughed and told him, “Believe me, you’ll know if it hasn’t worked. Now out you go, tatta.” No sooner had he spoken those words, than did he literally push him from behind sending him careering from the helicopter into the open sky! The sound of his scream was snatched away by the rush of wind, and Vincent, momentarily stunned, was horrified as his body twirled this way, that way, and upside down where in that position he saw the ground coming up to meet him and fear, anxiety and dread filled his very soul!
Count to ten, count to ten…Travis words drummed in his mind, but he didn’t wait, didn’t stop to wonder if ten had passed already, he just sought for and found the first cord and yanked hard, hoping for he did not know what, but just holding onto that one cord made all the difference – hope seared his heart and he closed his eyes tightly not knowing what to expect. There was a sound, a swish and then his body was yanked upright into position and he opened his eyes to see himself floating down slowly toward the mountain beneath him and daring to look up found himself suspended by a bright red canopy that he knew then to be a parachute.
Slowly, slowly the parachute glided effortlessly downward. Vincent knew no way to guide it, had only to rely on gravity and the air current to place him God knew where. White jagged rocks glittered in the sunlight and he steadied himself for landing upon them, glad when he drifted on by, his feet now mere yards from the ground. And now here he was, on the side of a mountain that he didn’t know, unless it was Denali? He looked around him slowly as his neck was stiff and his whole body felt frozen. Mists engulfed the mountain, mists made from snow particles swirled by the wind. Even so, Vincent could see the peak of another mountain towering above him and knew he was not on Denali, for he had stood there a dozen times and more looking down at other mountains that his father had given different names. If only he could remember them.
“So.” Vincent spoke aloud, and refrained from further speech as doing so pained his frozen lips. Within he continued his analysis, ‘if I’m not on Denali, then I’ll be on one of the other mountains nearby, even so…” His mind trailed off, he didn’t want to think of his perilous situation or how long it would take him to climb down the mountain and back up Denali to find the clan. And where was Swallow Tail? Had Travis King pushed her out also? Then where had she landed? Perhaps what he ought to do first was search for her. She might be injured. Forcing his fingers to wiggle Vincent moved painfully slowly. He tried moving the rest of his body but found it was impossible. Not only were his limbs frozen but his mind didn’t seem to want to tell his arms and legs what to do. ‘This is bad,’ Vincent reasoned. ‘I can’t possibly be of help to anyone unless I first help myself.’
The parachute was still caught up around him and he tugged at it pulling its cord inch by inch, as it brought a heap of fresh snow in its wake. At length it stopped, and Vincent tugged a little harder his fingers sliding over the cord and making no impression of movement at all. Grieved he put all his failing strength into dragging the parachute toward him flipping it slightly over the banked snow to make it move again. He couldn’t believe that he wasn’t able to just stand up, walk over and do what he was trying to do, and his mind rebelled at the task he had to accomplish if he could not do something so incredibly simple.
Inch by inch the bright red canopy came toward him as the cord heaped alongside his hand for he had not the strength to pile it behind him, even as close as his elbow was it was too far to pull the cord level with it. He kept his mouth closed, retaining as much heat in his body as possible. Breathing in icy air through his nostrils was already too much and his lungs were seared with the cold to the extent that they pained him. Seeing was almost becoming too much as frost formed upon his eyelashes and even the moisture in his eyes seemed brittle. Greatly disturbed by his predicament Vincent realised that the snowy mist had enveloped him and he had not noticed with his concentration set upon bringing the parachute to him. He almost laughed, for the task he’d set was so overwhelmingly impossible that to actually huddle the canopy around himself as had been his intention seemed beyond him.
‘This is useless!’ he told himself, and let go of the cord tied to the canopy. It fell away slowly, fastened to his gloved hand by ice crystals so that he had to brush it free.
He focused intently upon movement, literally sending messages from his brain to his legs, imagining that message travelling through his entire body to reach the appropriate limb, he watched fascinated as his legs obeyed. They moved! Centimetre by centimetre he brought his legs around and under him, sitting upright before he toppled, then he had his mind focus on his arms, bringing them into position whereby he could pull himself up to stand. It took maybe fifteen minutes to have the action accomplished and he was aware of a strange feeling as though his blood had thickened and his mind forced it to begin moving again. Dizziness enveloped him but he forced himself to stay upright positioning his legs wide for stability.
He knew now that moving would save his life even so, there were things he needed to do first. Getting warm was of utmost importance and he moved stiltedly toward the parachute lying bunched behind a bank of snow three feet from where he stood. If reaching it wasn’t enough, bending to retrieve it proved equally hard. It was as though he’d aged forty years, his bones creaked, his joints refused to obey and he literally had to close his eyes tightly and force himself to make the necessary attempt to reach out for and grasp the chute.
Next, he moved his eyes to the left and to the right, not daring to turn his head, and took in his surroundings as far as he could see. Since his neck hurt so much to move, briefly he wished for the first time in his life, that he had eyes on the side of his head like an animal so that he could see behind him and all around without having to move his head. Since he could not do that, he moved his feet, crunching the snow underfoot turning in a circle on the spot so that he could look around him.
Logic told him that if he could position the canopy like a tent, he could huddle inside away from the biting wind, and rub life back into his frozen limbs before he decided what to do next. However at that moment he gazed out across the snow and gasped aloud, “Swallow Tail!” as he saw a bright red blob upon the snow some forty, maybe fifty yards from where he was standing. There was no movement from the form that lay upon the ground, and he could not see from where he stood whether she was injured or unconscious. Calling her name was not an option even if it were possible. Silence had to be maintained on the mountain for fear of avalanche, which strangely Travis ought to have known before he had brought the helicopter circling above. The sound of the rotors could so easily have brought the snow scudding down from the mountaintop into the valley below and it was an added problem to think that the sound may have loosened the snow enough for that still to happen just as soon as the sun reached its highest point in the sky.
Trudging upward, Vincent made his way toward the red blob on the snow, keeping his gaze fixed on that spot as he climbed. It was extremely difficult to move at first and only strength of will overcome the difficulty of placing one foot in front of the other. With his failing strength, it was also grievous that he had to go up before he could go down, but needs must and it concerned him greatly that there was no movement from his female companion. Many thoughts dashed through his mind, what if she was badly injured? What if her parachute hadn’t opened? Was that what Travis meant about pulling the other cord? Had that been another parachute, what if that too had failed to open? And then he chided himself on his foolishness, obviously one had opened or he wouldn’t be seeing it…but his relief was short lived…what if it had opened too late to save her? Supposing she had lost the baby…supposing she had lost her life!
Focusing all his strength on reaching her as quickly as possible, Vincent finally made it to the edge of the red canopy after about twenty minutes, but arriving there caused his heart to beat painfully as he realised that Swallow Tail wasn’t underneath the canopy, that the bump he had seen beneath it from below was too small to be her, even if she had been crumpled into a heap. Lifting one edge confirmed his suspicions, it wasn’t Swallow Tail, it was his luggage, the things he had brought from home. Travis must have sent it down after he had pushed him out.
A mixture of regret anger and joy swept through Vincent. Regret that it wasn’t his companion, anger that he had climbed for nothing then joy as he remembered what he had packed inside the bag. His furs were in there, the clothing he knew he would need for life on the mountain, as well as some emergency supplies that he carried everywhere and a first aid kit, though at that moment he did not need it, Vincent remembered there were a tube of glucose tablets inside the pack, which would help him obtain enough strength to set him on his way.
Carefully, with fingers that ached from the cold even though he wore leather gloves with thermal innards Vincent picked open the fastenings and tried unzipping the bag. With the snow and ice, the cold and wind the zip had stuck and such a simple task became formidable and frustrating to Vincent who wanted to tear it open in his haste to put on something warmer, even though doing so would mean discarding what he did wear first in order to don the furs. But the zip wouldn’t budge, frozen snow had wedged itself between the teeth, perhaps when the bag had landed and Vincent struggled in vain. Tears rushed to his eyes, he wanted to weep, everything was almost too much and he was suddenly overwhelmed by his predicament, the unacceptability of it all, and a rushing terrifying thought that he would never see Catherine again. His enthusiasm to survive plummeted through such negative thinking and Vincent allowed himself the privilege to cry. Even that was impossible for as the tears filled his eyes, they went nowhere, for as soon as they bubbled upon his lower lids they froze from the intense cold of the weather. Strangely, that humoured Vincent, his sorry state was such that he couldn’t even shed tears when he wanted to do but i also gave him an idea.
As his tears surrounded his eyes they were at least, warm. Maybe his breath could be likewise? The thought of getting down onto the ground to be close to his bags was almost too much so Vincent just dropped to his knees in one action, glad when he landed straight and didn’t injure himself. That done, he bent down till his mouth was covering the opening around the zipper and he blew warm air onto the area again and again, tugging at the zip with his fingers as he did so. Bit by little bit the zipper became unstuck and started to glide in fits and starts along the edge of the bag. Jubilation at so small a victory filled Vincent with delight, and finally there was enough of the bag open for him to extract the things he required.
A heavy sigh followed, next came the truly hard part. Shedding the clothes he wore to don the furs, it was something that was absolutely objectionable to him. Cold enough, the last thing he wanted to do was undress and expose his naked flesh to the elements, but needs must. He was well aware that many thin garments kept one warmer than a few thick ones, but what he now wore would not go under his furs, and they were also wet so he had to discard them and quick. Painstakingly slowly he began to untie his outer wear, the things he had travelled in, then with increasing speed as he felt the biting cold even more through the lesser clothing he had on. It was almost impossible to reach down for the furs his arms felt like lead his hands unable to reach his fingers frozen to the extreme that they would not bend to pick up the furs laying atop his luggage. His teeth chattered and he began to shake as finally he caught up the jacket type piece that he would need to pull over his head. It was designed virtually in one piece like a sweater, tied tightly at the back with strips of hide. His father had shown him how to slip on an upper fur by placing ones arms inside first pulling it around oneself and having another tie it at the back loosely enough so that it could be slipped off and on at will without the help of another from then onward. On top of this upper fur was placed another upper fur, bulkier thicker, warmer, tied at the front and placed so that the two together let in no draught to the skin beneath. Vincent dispensed with the top upper fur until he had donned the lower furs, so that they did not hinder him when bending to pull on the furred trousers. Again a similar mode of dress followed. First the lighter furred undergarments covered by the thicker bulkier fur leggings and then the boots so made so that they would glide beneath the upper trouser bottoms so no snow would tumble into them. With his endeavours and the thicker clothing Vincent began to feel more alive as his blood grew warmer and pounded through his veins as his heart raced fast by his exertions. Soon heat flooded through him, surging forth into his arms his legs, even reaching his extremities and he felt suddenly flushed and hot in the wake of his recent condition of being so dreadfully cold. Finally he donned the upper fur, tying it into place with the fastenings at the front and then he packed his discarded belongings, shoved them into the small hole he had managed to open in the bag and then as a sudden thought hit him he dragged them out again. Rummaging inside the bag he found what he wanted a sheet of paper a pen and something to lean on and with them he briskly wrote a letter:
“This bag belongs to Vincent Wells, husband of Catherine (nee Chandler)” (he added her old apartment address then continued. “I was brought here against my will and forced from a helicopter for reasons I do not understand. My intention now is to descend the mountain and try to find help. I have sufficient clothing to withstand the cold, but have no supplies of food or drink. I do have a small first aid kit and a flashlight. I have with me a large red canopy that was the parachute. In the possibility that I may never be seen again, would the finder of this luggage please return it with this letter to my wife at the address above? Thank you. Sincerely, Vincent Wells.” Then folding the letter he tucked it between his knees as he pulled from the bag everything it contained, going through it meticulously until he had the barest amount of things he would need, and pushed the rest back in. He had matches, pen, paper, flashlight, first aid kit, glucose tablets, knife and firelighters - he hadn’t remembered packing those, Catherine must have done it and he was never more glad that she had.
After he had returned the unwanted items to his bag, he lay the letter inside, not on top where it would blow away the moment the bag was opened, but between layers of items therein, and that done, he placed the things he would take with him in the small carry case hooked to the main parachute pack, that would usually house all kinds of necessities for one who enjoyed that form of sport. This he tied to his side, on small hide hooks sewn into the furry outer garment for that purpose. The clan used these to fasten any number of items that they required while out hunting. In fact the clan clothing was always filled with as many pockets, tags and fastenings as possible, for one never knew when one might require them.
Finally he deemed himself ready, and popping a glucose tablet on top of his tongue he pushed himself back and up into a standing position, stamping the blood back into his feet and legs before with one last look around he began his perilous journey down the mountain.

*** *** ***

When he thought about it Travis King realised he had acted hastily. Not looking beyond actually separating the couple he had been geared only to break them apart, to show them what would be done over and again should they ever try to leave the clan. But on reflection, after the elders had ousted Travis from the mountain, he began to see the sense of his actions.
He’d taken Swallow Tail whom he’d considered to be an experienced mountaineer and tossed her from the helicopter half way down, or up depending on how one considered it, onto Mount Foraker, otherwise known as Sultana meaning ‘woman’ or ‘wife’ in the native tongue. And due to that Travis had thought it was a fitting place to leave her.
The Best of Everything was something else. And Travis had speculated at length on where to place him. He was strong, true, but inexperienced at mountaineering, and Travis’s idea to place him on the smaller mountain was only one lesser evil. Known as Begguya meaning ‘Denali’s Child’ by the Native Alaskans, and otherwise known as ‘Mount Hunter’ Travis had reasoned that under the circumstances, with The Best of Everything being the lost child and all that, he should place him on that mountain. However, of the two mountains Mount Hunter would prove to be the most dangerous to descend. The Best of Everything’s strength and fortitude would be put sorely to the test.
Reprimanding himself on his foolishness Travis took heart, it wasn’t the climbing that posed the greatest challenge on either mountain rather it was the weather. Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker were both situated some two hundred miles south of the Artic Circle and the weather was unpredictable. Still at least oxygen levels would not pose the problems faced on Denali, where due to its higher altitude and the climate around its summit made it one of the most adverse places for living conditions on earth. It was one of the reasons the clan resided there, so far from civilisation, where few people stumbled upon them. Any that did marvelled that such a large body of people could not only live on Denali but that their kind had survived there for thousands of years.
Therefore, Travis reasoned that what he had done might appear bad, but in retrospect, both Swallow Tail and The Best of Everything, were able to survive the experience. Travis had no qualms about the threat issued by Merry Wolf. Swallow Tail’s expertise at mountain life would see her safe, and if by some misfortune the other died, what loss would it be? Prowling Cat and Indigo Sky had lost their son once, had learned to live without him, so they could do it again, he reasoned mercilessly. And it would be no great loss to the city of New York, and save the bounty hunters a difficult job of capturing him.
Travis nodded; yes on reflection his actions had proved to be merciful for all concerned. He refused to think of Swallow Tail traversing the mountain or how treacherous journeying over the ice glaciers would be. How with no tools or sustenance and minimal clothing likely Swallow Tail would freeze to death before first nightfall. He refused to think of those things. Had he known she was pregnant, he might have felt guilty, but even that was doubtful.
Travis believed he had acted with insight. In the long run many people would be spared decisions, experiences, journeys, all relating to the missing couple, and most of all the clan could continue to go about their way as they had for generations, despite the folly of The International Year of the Beast, which in Travis’s mind had done little to make things better for the people.
“They’ll thank me eventually.” Travis spoke out loud. “It’ll all come right in the end I know it will.” Believing that would be so, Travis thought no more about it.

*** *** ***

Her eyes adjusted painfully slowly. Encrusted by ice her lashes stuck to her cheeks and the strain on her eyelids was not only painful but also frightening. Panic seared Swallow Tail’s heart. Momentarily blind, just rousing from unconsciousness, she knew not where she was, or why she was so cold. Freezing conditions were not uncommon in her life, but being so exposed to the elements was.
Usually had she been laid out upon the snow, she would be spared the cruel and biting wind by a warm cave or a canopy, she had neither. Every extremity was so cold it was difficult to tell with her eyes closed whether her limbs were still intact. That too terrified her. She wondered if she was already dead. She considered that her brain was the last to function and if it could survive three minutes without oxygen then what should she think of? Her family?
Her failing strength was renewed by his name, and Swallow Tail struggled to become lucid. She could not allow herself to die! Whatever her circumstances, whatever had become of her she had to fight the sweep of unconsciousness that threatened to flow over her. She did not realise that she had been on the verge of rising from that state, only thought she had been sleeping.
Somehow, her frantic mind managed to send a signal to one of her arms and she moved it with difficulty. It felt heavy and alien but the movement filled her with a mighty sense of hope. She was not a dying torso after all, but rather if she dwelt on it hard enough she’d find limbs that moments ago she’d believed lost to her.
The arm obeyed her commands, even so that first feather light touch of a hand, her own hand, upon her face, made Swallow Tail jump. It felt cumbersome and heavy and the mere action of swiping at her eyes was too much. Swallow Tail’s arm fell to her side as a weight too heavy to bear.
Still, the action was enough to break the ice from her lashes, and she lifted one eyelid blinking slowly to release any lashes that were still caught upon her cheeks. Painfully aware of every movement her eyeball made beneath its thin covering, Swallow Tail cracked open a lid and holding her gaze steady she focused on her immediate surroundings.
From what she could see, she was on a mountain, jagged and ice encrusted. Expertise told her of her location as at the same moment her mind remembered everything that had happened to her over the last few hours, assuming it was a few hours. There was no telling how long she had been there for.
Tears froze the moment they gathered and Swallow Tail reprimanded herself. This was no time for self-pity. What had happened, had happened, the way forward was to think logically, and to find Vincent. For if there was one thing Swallow Tail did realise, if Vincent had ended up in the same sorry state as she then his chances of survival were very slim indeed.
It was important that she moved, got some life back into her limbs, some blood flowing, but doing so was slow and Swallow Tail was painfully aware of every movement.
First her eyes, she needed to open them fully, take in her surroundings and the impeding weather conditions. A murky haze surrounded her made from she knew, from ice particles blown on the wind. Swallow Tail knew that the climate around Mount Foraker with its sub artic temperatures was probably more severe than any other place on earth. The weather dictated one’s every move and here was where Travis King had dumped her.
No time for self-pity and tears, even if they could flow. The few that did rise to her eyes froze the moment they made contact with the frigid air. Her eyes felt dry and crisp and it was becoming difficult to blink.
Living all her life on Denali, Swallow Tail had only ever heard stories of other climbers, most of them helpers, who had tackled Begguya or Sultana. Thirty-five degrees north of Everest and the same latitude as Hudson Bay and central Scandinavia, Sultana’s extreme weather conditions had brought many an experienced climber to their untimely death. The outlook did not look good to Swallow Tail. What made it worse was that she knew that the Sultana Ridge was for experienced mountaineers only. By some wisp of luck she might survive but if Vincent were upon it somewhere…well… Swallow Tail did not like to think of that.
His physical condition would have him in good standing and he’d need that to traverse Sultana’s glacier passes, but what would be his downfall was having no ropes or ice axe, and it was doubtful that Travis King had provided him with either.
In fact what had been Travis King’s objective? Why had he blindfolded her before he had thrown Vincent out? Was it so she could not see where Vincent landed? That had to be why. There was no other explanation.
Swallow Tail’s experience of Travis King as a helper had never shown him to be anyone the clan could not trust. So what had changed him? Had the hunters got to him? Had he been swayed by a vast amount of money to kill Vincent? As she thought it, Swallow Tail moved faster than she had moments earlier by bringing both hands to cover her mouth and stifle a scream. She hadn’t thought of that! Had that been King’s intention, to kill Vincent, was that why he had blindfolded her and then afterward made her put on her furs so she would stand a better chance of survival? Pray God, may Vincent still be alive!
Swallow Tail thought of Catherine, of the promise Vincent had made. ‘Ten days, Catherine, that’s all, just ten days.” And he’d done it for what? Just so they might make the clan believe they were a couple, were wed, that The Best of Everything was father to her unborn child? Again Swallow Tail wanted to cry. Maybe their deceit had angered the gods, perhaps that was why King had acted so wickedly, perhaps the gods had made him do it, that by their lies and their deceit it was their punishment. “I can’t believe that!” Swallow Tail muttered and immediately pursed her lips tightly pulling them into her mouth as far as was possible to sooth the cracks that had appeared when she’d spoken out loud.
Whatever had been King’s goal in throwing Vincent and herself out of the helicopter, she was not going to find it by remaining where she was. Her lips were frozen, as were her eyes, tears froze as they gathered, and Swallow Tail had to find shelter to ponder her options, night was falling and descending over Foraker like an ominous black cloak.

Then suddenly, as far away as Darren was, Swallow Tail had an idea. She would focus on her truelove and have him know that something terrible had happened. He’d climbed Foraker, Hunter and Denali. Living in Alaska all his life mountaineering was a hobby he adored. He had all the gear too, and knew people experienced in the same field. If anyone could help her Darren could, and he in turn would help Vincent, assuming it was not too late… No! She would not think of that! She had to remain optimistic. If she, pregnant and all, could survive the drop so could Vincent surely? The fact that Darren was a plane ride away did not matter. If she found someplace to shelter, if she focused all her strength and attention on their bond, he would come and he would find her and together they would find Vincent.
It had to be the only way.

*** *** ***

There was one thing, Vincent’s immense knowledge of books and their content was about to save his life.
He’d descended only a few yards down the mountain when he realised the difficulty of the terrain. He was in hostile land with sheer five thousand foot faces that sent avalanches and icefalls plunging to glaciers below. The simple matter of walking was not an option it was too difficult to tell what lay beneath his next step.
He’d read stories of Alaskan mountain ranges, Devin had told him of some first hand experiences, and more recently Darren had related some more. Through them, one sweep of his gaze revealed that the three summits towering above him meant that in all likelihood he was on Mount Hunter where each summit was separated by large fields of ice.
Treacherous conditions that would bring forth likely death was enough to make Vincent realise his options were limited.
He had no tools, apart from a pair of scissors and a needle in his first aid kit. He did have a tin mug, and likely he could use that for digging but it would be useless if he should slip and slide, there was no way he could use it to maintain a grip and he so could so easily lose his grasp on it, if he were to fall. Since everything he had with him was precious, Vincent intended nothing must be lost.
The one thing he had to remember was his limited, if not non-existent food supply. Whether ascending or descending, traversing the mountain would sap all his strength, he would require nutritious food if he were to succeed. He had nothing but a tube of glucose tablets. It was also unlikely he would encounter any climbers. Both Hunter and Foraker received their fair share of mountaineers but very few made it to the summit, and Vincent knew this. However, his reasons to build a snow cave and wait it out had nothing to do with the expectation or the hope that someone might manage the climb and stumble upon him. Vincent knew that he’d only to dwell on the bond that he shared with Catherine, and she would at once know that he needed help. He hoped she would not rush to his aid, but rather that she would tell Darren and Devin of her fears, and that they would do something about it.
It was all he could do for anything else, like attempting the descent would be foolish.
However, the task he had to accomplish was daunting. He had to have shelter. He must stay warm, and unbeknown to Vincent virtually the same moment that he looked around for a suitable place to begin digging, so too, did Swallow Tail on Mount Foraker do likewise.
Simultaneously they found what they were looking for. A bank of snow beneath a ridge looked promising where no avalanche would threaten them, and Vincent with his tin mug and Swallow Tail with her bare hands slowly began to dig out a snow cave.

To be continued in Chapter Twenty-Two.




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