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Encounters

On Wings, Rising

Reaching Higher

Bound To Fall

Ann Somerville

The novels in this anthology have been previously published.

These stories are a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.


On Wings, Rising © 2008 Anne Somerville

Reaching Higher © 2008 Anne Somerville

Bound To Fall © 2010 Anne Somerville


Cover image © rudall30 with additional manipulation by the author


All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

For more information please visit my website at http://annsomerville.net


Smashwords Edition 1, May 2017

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Published by Ann Somerville


Chapter One – On Wings, Rising

“Now remember I need a big doem skin, Dinun. At least three tarn long.” Sora handed him a sack of meal from her stores, and noted it on the list she kept behind the door. Dinun would settle his account with her on his return, like he always did.

“Give over, Sora.” Dinun wrinkled his nose at her. “You’ve told me that twice already. I’ll bring you back everything I find. It’s not like anyone else in the settlement would pay me a thing for it.”

“You could trade it.”

She closed the storeroom door and they went back out into the kitchen. Dawn light was starting to show through the windows. Dinun wondered if he could beg a second cup of tea, but Sora had done him a big enough favour, getting up to see him off, even if he’d watched the kids for her last night because she had a big weaving job to finish. Didn’t do to push his luck.

“Now why would I do that when you’ll take everything anyone will sell you, huh?” He shook his head. She was a worrier. “’Sides, have to keep the coats for my three little tax reliefs all nice and trim, don’t I?”

Just as he said it, tax-relief number one barrelled into the kitchen. “Pa! Take me for a ride on Almi afore you go!”

He swung Kaji, still in her nightgown, up onto his shoulders, making her giggle. “No time, squirt. I’m leaving late as it is. Want to reach the Helme Hills before dusk.”

“Ma, he promised,” Kaji whined as he set her down.

“Didn’t, Kaji. Not the morning I leave. That wouldn’t make any sense now, would it?”

“Pa-ah.”

“Leave him be, Kaji. Dinun, you better go before Dai wakes up and starts in on you too.”

He nodded but then crouched down in front of a pouting Kaji. “Soon as I come back, sprout. I’ll take you out for a two-quen ride, I promise.”

“One quen,” Sora warned.

Kaji turned around to give her mother a look. “Ma-ah.” The pout grew deeper.

“One quen out, one quen back. That’s two, right?” Dinun said. “One and one is—”

“Two!” Kaji bellowed. “Two and two is four!”

“Thank you, dear,” Sora interrupted before her child gave them the full mathematical recitation. “Dinun, I could do with some talin wood.”

“I’ll remember,” Dinun said. “But if I don’t go, there’ll be no doem skin or talin wood, I won’t make any money and all the tax reliefs will starve. That’ll make me cry. Will it make you cry, Kaji sprout?”

She nodded. “Cry and cry and cry. You better go, Pa. Make lots of money for us.”

He ruffled her hair. “Sure will.”

Sora and Kaji walked out with him into the yard. “Think you’ll make it back before the cold weather?” Sora asked.

“Dunno. Wouldn’t be the first time I got caught out. I’ll be fine.”

“See that you do. Take it careful now.”

He grinned as he swung up into driving seat. Almi growled and snorted with impatience, but she was too well trained to move off until he told her. “Always do. Take care of my little reliefs now. Can’t afford to lose ’em.”

Sora made her usual face at his joke. He released the brake, snicked and flicked the reins, and Almi moved off, quickly settling into her long-legged shuffle. Dinun waved at Sora and his daughter, then concentrated on his driving. He had a long way to go that day.

He drove the cart through the settlement, beginning to come awake as the sun rose over the horizon. Ryden’s wife, Hara, opening up at her laundry, gave him a thin-lipped look when Dinun raised his hand in greeting. He shrugged and continued on. At the end of the main street, he nodded politely to Lopi at the smithy. The blacksmith sniffed and gave the barest nod back before turning away, making a great show of his hammering to prove he had far better things to consider than Dinun qel Noto.

Lopi and Hara were one more reason Dinun couldn’t wait get out of the settlement and onto the rocky plains. He liked staying in his own house just fine, but nothing beat camping under the stars. He’d have to return for shelter before the temperatures dropped during the cold season, but in all other weathers, he was glad to leave.

He’d drawn the southern route in the fossickers’ ballot, towards the low ranges past the Helme Hills. Not the best luck of the draw he’d ever had, but there were worse routes he could have won. He’d been there a few times over the last ten years, but it was far from fully exploited, and he hoped for a good find of high-grade treten gemstone this trip. His savings were a bit on the low side, and even with the tax reliefs, his statutory obligations took a big chunk. At least Sora always gave him good exchange on the doem skins, and a couple of large rejer hides and horns would bring in twenty zuso apiece.

According to the almanac, summer had passed two weeks before, but there was still plenty of heat in the brightening sun, and before he’d driven an hour, he’d put his hat on to shade his face. Almi in her shaggy coat was as protected from the sun as she was from the winter winds and snow, and she plodded on, apparently immune to the temperature of the sun-baked earth beneath her padded feet.

While Almi was fresh and the roads good, he planned to make twenty-five quen that first day, and he did. Still, it was nearly full dark before he found his favoured campsite in the shadow of the hills. He fed and watered Almi, and lit a fire to keep away scavenging animals and biting pests. He didn’t need to cook since Sora had packed him some cured meat and bread for his supper, as a favour for minding the kids. He boiled up water for tea and poured some into a flask for the morning, and the rest into his tin mug.

Almi settled down for the night and he lay back contently against her warm hairy bulk, wrapped in two snug blankets, drinking tea and watching the flames, his sidearm at hand but unlikely to be needed. This is the life. Screw the settlement and the judgemental bastards who lived there.

He woke early as he always did out on the trail. Almi still snored so he let her be while he took a piss and the opportunity to assess his surroundings. A tikbird’s distinctive alarm call in the tree a little way ahead of him made him grin. It signalled doem were out looking for prey, and where the big reptiles hunted, their cast-off skins might be found. Not likely to be much in the way of treten stone, but he’d found the stone in the strangest places before now.

His breakfast was the rest of the bread and meat. Now he had to rely on his hunting to supplement the dried legumes and flour he’d brought with him, so the traps were the first thing he attended to. By the time he’d finished, Almi had woken up and was shuffling around, grazing on leaves. He didn’t need to hobble her. She was too used to humans to like the company of other rejers and in the unlikely event some predator stalked their camp, he wanted her able to move out of its way.

As he collected firewood and twigs for kindling, he heard the screech of a tiln high above the hills. He pulled out the binoculars for a good look. It was a truly fine male bird in blue breeding plumage, soaring over the thermals. He could probably hit it with his rifle, but he didn’t have a license to kill one, and no liking to do so. He preferred them alive and magnificent, not slung on his belt as a trophy.

But he wasn’t here to admire the birdlife. He picked up more wood and some mushrooms growing on damp wood, and headed back to camp, taking a slightly different route and keeping an eye out for anything of use. His vigilance paid off a mere fifty tarn from the campsite, when he spotted the silvery surface of a cast-off doem skin between two rocks.

He dumped his load of wood and hurried over, hardly believing his luck this early on. The skin was a real beauty too—flawless, half a tarn wide and at least three long. Sora would be delighted. Quite a few coats and gloves would be sporting parts of it in the coming winter. A couple more like this and his savings would be boosted nicely.

He folded the skin carefully and tucked it inside his shirt, then found his pile of wood and shouldered it. Back at the site, a nice fat tusa had entangled itself in one of his traps. He slit the rodent’s throat and hung it up to drain while he readied his portable smoker. Mushrooms cooked in tusa fat would make a fine lunch. He was having a pretty good morning so far.

His luck held for the two days he remained at the site, though he only found a handful of low-grade treten. Still, it wasn’t worthless, and he’d secured himself meat for a good week or more, as well as firewood and some doem skin fragments just big enough for Sora, in addition to the large perfect specimen. Not bad at all for the start of his foray.

But the treten stone was the real prize, so he needed to shift his arse and move on up into the hills. Before he’d left, he’d done some digging into the settlement archives, and discovered that there used to be a route through the hills before a newer, straighter path had been hewn out. The other route hadn’t been in use for at least a hundred years, so the spirits alone knew what condition it was in now. Still, it crossed three creeks, which meant animals and water, and by his reckoning there should be possibilities for fossicking at several points. Most importantly, because it wasn’t the main path, it wouldn’t be picked over too badly. Everyone said that he had the sharpest eyes in Getake (as well as a good many less flattering things, which he tried to ignore), so that might make all the difference.

Almi didn’t like the alternative road, which was narrow and stony, making the slope treacherous, and high rock walls felt oppressive even in the sunshine. But when they came to the first creek and the path opened out a bit, Dinun was sure the hassle had been worth it. Here, trees and bushes ran riot, undisturbed by humans for many years. Birds flocked to bathe and drink, and the tracks of animals that hunted them were everywhere. Best of all, not a minute after he’d jumped down from the driving seat, he found a fist-sized purple lump of treten-bearing stone, and he’d eat that treten if there wasn’t more to be found in the rock walls and fallen boulders around the place.

He unhitched Almi and set her to graze, then began to explore. As he’d hoped, he soon had a sack full of stones as well as two fat dakan. The water birds were good eating and would provide grease and feathers for sale, so he was pleased to bring them down. But after he’d spent another two hours fossicking, he realised first appearances had deceived him. The area only carried low-grade stone and even if he filled the cart with it, the load would sell for less than thirty zuso. He couldn’t pay for his supplies with that, let alone make a profit. Although Almi would fuss at him for making her work again, he decided to press on to the next stop, try his luck there.

He arrived at the new campsite a good hour and a half before official sunset, but the high walls of the path cast deep shadows, leaving little enough light to even walk by. There was no point in fossicking before the new day dawned, so he pitched his tent and set Almi to wander, before using what was left of the daylight to pluck the dakan and set one of them to smoke. The other he could cook that night and leave the grease to cool and solidify overnight.

He’d just put the first of the two naked carcasses in the smoker and lit the fire, when he heard Almi squeal in alarm a little way off, down towards the creek. It was probably a tusa—for some reason Almi disliked the big, harmless rodents—but it might be a doem, trying its luck before the night drew in. He’d take a look anyway, since he needed to wash his hands. When he’d done that, his rejer was circling around near a thick clump of bushes, so whatever had bothered her was in there. He wiped his hands on his shirt and drew his sidearm, lifting his lamp high.

“What’s up, girl? Nasty old doem giving you conniptions?”

Almi backed away as he approached, rolling her eyes and snorting, apparently happy for her herd’s lead male to deal with the problem. The fact that her big feet and powerful legs could outmatch even a fully-grown luven if she was motivated didn’t make any difference in her tiny brain. Dinun’s job was to deal with nasties, and so he could.

He couldn’t smell doem, but he definitely smelled blood. Something wounded? If it was dead, it was a fresh kill which was kind of worrying. He listened. Something breathed hard and fast in the shadows.

Sidearm cocked and ready, he slung the lamp’s strap around his neck and used a dead branch to ease aside the living ones. He had the barest sighting of something large and white before blinding terror seized him, knocking the breath from him and making him freeze, unable to flee or fire the weapon though he desperately wanted to do both.

Just as suddenly, the feeling disappeared completely, as if it had never been, leaving only confusion.

“What in the name of the spirits…?” He shook himself. He’d never experienced anything like that in his life.

Almi made a pained little squeak and when Dinun turned, he saw her give the same whole-body shake as he’d done. Had whatever it was affected her as well?

Too weird, and something he needed to uncover. He picked up the branch he’d dropped when the strange terror had overcome him, and pushed back the shrub.

“Spirits help me!”

There, in the cover of the bushes, blood pulsing down one long silvery-white wing, lay a creature that had become almost a myth to the residents of Quarn. An Angel. A full-blooded—and badly injured—Angel, shivering in the shadows, baring sharp teeth in warning.

“I won’t hurt you,” Dinun murmured. The Angel hissed, and Dinun felt a flash of fear and anger enter his mind—only, it wasn’t his fear and anger. Telepathy, he realised in shock. Angels had no speech, he dimly remembered from school. Which probably meant his words were so much jabber to it. Him. There was a sizable genital mound that definitely screamed “male”.

He did his best to project soothing helpfulness and concern as he knelt. The Angel shifted weakly, hissing and jerking in apparent pain. He seemed to have been injured between his second pair of shoulders, the ones supporting the wings. One of the wings was injured too, an obviously wrong bend in the largest bone signalling a bad break.

“You need to come out.” Dinun gestured and tried to think of the action as well so the Angel could read it from his mind. “I want to help.”

::Afraid::

“Yes, I know. I won’t hurt you. I’m going to help you. Here.” He moved forward as unthreateningly as he could, and to his relief, the Angel, through exhaustion or resignation, allowed Dinun to slip an arm under a furred armpit, and eased the creature out. Dinun was amazed how light the Angel was, for all that he was easily half a tarn taller than Dinun, who was hardly a short man.

Once cleared of the bushes, the Angel collapsed in a faint, but he was so light that Dinun could easily scoop him up and carry him back to the campfire. The light from Dinun’s lamp revealed how sickly the Angel’s colour was, a distinct grey tone to the dark skin. The reason was clear, since the beautiful fur and injured wing were drenched with blood. If Dinun didn’t bind the wound, the Angel would die soon from blood loss. But how to bind such an injury?

He propped the unconscious Angel against his pack, then ran to the cart for his bedroll, blankets and medical kit. In a flash of inspiration, though with a little regret, he grabbed the large piece of doem skin too. He had an idea that might just work.

Almi came shuffling over as he worked, perhaps a little ashamed of her cowardice, but he had no time to console her. He wrapped the Angel in the blankets, tucking the long legs up under them. Then he pumped up the lamp again so he could take a good look at the injury. Nasty—it hadn’t been caused by a fall or an animal attack, since there were scorch marks, though the break might have been caused by a tumble after the attack, or possibly a blow. He wondered who’d shoot an Angel and why, but right now, he had more urgent things to deal with. He set to carefully cleaning the wound, then used a piece of tape to temporarily hold the dressing in place. The tape would stick on the fur but that was the least of his worries.

The next task was to straighten the broken wing. Dinun was grateful the Angel wasn’t aware of what he was doing because it would surely hurt like fury. He used sterilised splint sticks and more tape to keep them in place, then he gently folded the wing back into the same rest position as the uninjured one. Now all he had to do was immobilise it, for which he needed the doem skin. He wrapped the wings, the arm and the Angel’s chest tightly in the skin, using bandage clips to hold it all together. When he was done, the Angel looked like a badly wrapped parcel, but he was still breathing, and the wing was safe and immobilised.

Dinun spread out his bedroll, helped the Angel lie down on his good side, and hoped the creature would sleep safely through the night. He didn’t like to think about the real possibility that the Angel would die. The death of something this beautiful would be an awful loss.

But he’d done all he could, so it was up to the spirits. By now, it was full dark. Dinun built up the fire and used the lamp, making his way back to the creek to wash his hands and collect more water. Somehow the Angel would need to replace lost fluid, which meant plenty of clean drinking water or tea. He’d want to eat too. The only thing Dinun knew about their food habits was that they were completely carnivorous, but whether they could eat cooked food, or already killed meat, he had no idea. He’d find out, he supposed.

Where had this one come from? They lived in groups, he recalled. Was this one hunting? Would his friends come to find him? He knew so little about these creatures. No one knew much about them—not any more, at least.

He checked on his patient again. The only areas of bare skin on the Angel’s body were the palms of his hands, the soles of his feet, and the eerily beautiful face, the rest of the body being covered with white fur. His face felt cold to the touch—Dinun doubted this was normal. But all he could do for the creature was keep him warm in the blankets and build the fire up.

He cooked the second dakan as he’d planned, but didn’t season it with the bitter herbs he’d found earlier, in case he needed to feed the flesh to the Angel. His meal done, Dinun stowed the grease in a can, and put the uneaten fowl into a food pail. Almi settled down as usual, no longer troubled by the stranger since Dinun was so at ease with him. He moved the Angel up against her for warmth, making sure the injured creature had the most benefit from the fire that Dinun could arrange.

The autumn nights were cold now. Dinun couldn’t sleep in just his jacket like he did in the summer, but there weren’t enough blankets for them each to have a set. He had no choice but to gingerly slide in under those covering his patient, and hope that the Angel wouldn’t panic upon wakening and decide to use those scarily sharp teeth to defend himself.

The Angel still stank of the metallic odour of blood, but under that, didn’t have any particular smell. His dense fur was softer than dakan down, and purer white in colour than the hair on Dinun’s head. His bare skin was somewhat darker than Dinun’s, almost charcoal black, but Dinun had already seen plenty to prove what he’d known all his life without really understanding it—that he and this Angel were genetic cousins. Artificially created cousins to be sure, and that creation hundreds of years in the past, but nonetheless it was true. The new day would tell whether that kinship would stop the Angel from being afraid or lashing out once he recovered his strength. Legends of their fierceness and abilities were the stuff of childhood stories. He hoped the Angel would see his assistance as being in good faith. If not…

No point in worrying, and the creature was helpless now. If anyone should be fretting, it should be the Angel, not Dinun. He grunted and tucked in closer beside his injured companion. Whatever happened, at least he’d be able to tell his kids he’d spent the night at the side of a legend.


Chapter Two – On Wings, Rising

When Dinun woke at dawn, roused by a noisy chorus of birds in the trees near the creek, the Angel hadn’t moved at all. But he still breathed, and Dinun thought his face felt slightly warmer, looked a touch less ashen. That he’d survived the night was surely a good sign, and Dinun, relieved and grateful that the Angel had made it this far, chose to take it as one.

It was the wrong time of year for eggs, but right for nuts and some of the autumn berries. A half hour’s forage rewarded him with more than enough food for his breakfast, and with a mug of tea and a rebuilt fire, Dinun was content to sit and watch his companion sleeping against a slumbering Almi.

The picture books at school didn’t do Angels justice. No image could capture the sheen of the exquisite fur or the elegance of the long, fine-boned face. It was rumoured that the first colonisers of this planet had been so obsessed with the Angels’ beauty that fights had broken out over the right to take one or other of them as lovers. The legends of Angel-human children were pure myth, of course, but scientists long ago had genetically mixed the two species in their laboratories. Dinun, like all his kin, were walking evidence of the success of those experiments, now long since banned, and no longer even possible since the knowledge had been lost hundreds of years ago. Still, seeing his first Angel in the flesh, he understood how seductive the idea of hybridising with these beautiful creatures would have been.

He watched the Angel for nearly an hour. He could hardly do anything else—leaving him to go fossicking was unthinkable, and there were no immediately urgent tasks. How long would this delay him? If the Angel didn’t die—which Dinun sincerely hoped he didn’t—his recovery could take a while. A lot depended on where the other Angels were, and if they could help this one. Oh, well. It wasn’t like he was on a tight schedule or anything.

Finally, Almi groaned herself awake and went to stand. Dinun had to jump in and support the Angel’s head while she lumbered to her feet and wandered off in search of water and feed. As he cast about for something to pillow the Angel’s head against the hard ground, he found himself staring into a pair of enormous, unblinking green eyes.

::Uncertain. Afraid. Curious. Pain::

Dinun jumped a little in surprise. This telepathy thing took a bit of getting used to. It was like having another person in his brain.

“Take it easy. You’re safe.” He scrabbled for his pack and shoved it under the Angel’s neck. The Angel slumped wearily onto it as if the brief exertion of holding his head up for those few seconds had been too much.

::Grateful. Pain::

Dinun suddenly had an image in his mind of a pool of water, then a stream. After he got over the surprise of pictures being so abruptly shoved into his thoughts, he worked out what they meant. The Angel wanted to drink. “You’re thirsty? Of course you are.”

His metal cup confused the creature. He had to resort to pouring water into his cupped hand so the Angel could lap it. He fed most of a canteen to the Angel in this manner, a long process that left the injured creature panting for breath, eyes half-closed. The Angel undoubtedly needed more fluid, but too much and he would only vomit it up.

He let the Angel rest for a little while until he had his breathing under control. Then Dinun fetched the food pail with the cooked dakan and tore off a tender piece of breast meat. He held it out to the Angel and let him sniff. “It’s food. Safe to eat, I promise.”

The Angel nibbled delicately at it and seemed to find it acceptable. Dinun fed him tiny bits of dakan flesh, careful not to give him any piece big enough to choke on. The Angel took each bite between pointed, perfect white teeth, chewing carefully before swallowing. Dinun imagined the creature’s skin recovering a healthy colour with each swallow.

The Angel fell asleep after consuming most of the dakan breast. Since he was apparently in no imminent danger of dying, Dinun thought he could risk attending to some minor chores close to camp, like seeing to the smoked dakan and collecting more firewood. As he picked up fallen branches and twigs for tinder, he spotted the telltale purple shine of a treten vein in the rock wall above him. If and when he finished nursing the Angel, there were rich pickings here. Somehow, with the wonder of an Angel lying by his campfire, he found it hard to be excited about a few bits of admittedly valuable stone.

The Angel slept all morning while Dinun kept watch between his chores. Now he gave some thought as to what to do with him. Likely the creature needed more medical aid than Dinun’s little kit or his basic training could provide. That meant taking him back to Getake, unless he could contact other Angels for help. Would he survive the jolting journey and two days on the road? Would he even allow it? And would the settlement treat the Angel with respect or with fear?

Angels were deemed to be humanoids and protected from persecution by strict laws. The same penalties applied to killing one as would apply to killing Dinun—though Dinun wasn’t treated all that well by many of Getake’s residents. Still, to save the Angel’s life, Dinun would have to risk it, and if the Angel was strong enough to fight him, then he was strong enough to leave on his own two feet—or on his own two wings. Though it would be some time before the Angel could fly again. It was a nasty break.

At noon as Dinun returned from a short foray to collect mushrooms and drain his sap collectors, he found the Angel awake and alert. A picture of the dakan in the food pail flashed into his mind.

::Hungry::

“What, already? Okay.”

The Angel was definitely stronger—and ravenous. Once Dinun helped him to sit up a little, he could feed himself, and in hardly any time at all, had stripped the remaining flesh from the cooked dakan and was looking around for more. Slightly amused by the greediness, Dinun produced the second dakan, wondering if the smoked flavour would deter his patient, but no. After a couple of exploratory sniffs, the Angel tore into it, pausing only to drink some water from Dinun’s cup—again, after some sniffing. The metal clearly bothered him but not enough to stop him drinking a whole flask of water along with the entire second fowl.

Even after all that, Dinun still had a flash of hopeful ::Hungry:: but he wagged his finger. “You’ll explode. Rest for a bit.”

The Angel stared at him as if processing his words or the thoughts behind it. “Yes.”

Dinun blinked. Had the Angel used the word or had Dinun read it into an emotion of assent? “You understand me?”

Another long pause. “Yes. You. Mind. Take. Slow.” ::Tired. Pain::

“That’s incredible. Here, let me.”

The Angel wanted to sit up straighter than Dinun’s pack allowed, so Dinun shifted him back to a boulder, propping him up carefully with the pack to lean on if he wanted.

::Grateful::

“That’s okay. What’s your name? And how were you hurt?”

Name?” ::Confused::

“What do I call you?” He pointed to himself. “I’m Dinun.”

Dinun. Meaning?”

“Uh. It doesn’t really have a meaning. It was my grandfather’s name.”

Parental relative meaning.” ::Confused::

“Our names don’t always mean something. ‘Dinun’ just means ‘me’.”

Dinun.” Then Dinun received an image of his own face. “Yes.”

Conversations were going to take forever. “Your name?” He pointed at the Angel. He received an image of Quarn’s three moons. “Moon?” But then the image narrowed to the smallest of the satellites. “Heshi?”

Heshi?” ::Confused::

Dinun realised there was no way that the Angel could know the human name for the object. “Uh, Smallest Moon? Small Moon?”

Small Moon. Possible. Yes.” And just to reinforce it, the picture of Heshi came up again.

“So you’re Small Moon. Moon for short.” The Angel’s rather inexpressive face actually wrinkled a little as he projected more confusion. “Never mind. I’ll call you ‘Moon’ but think ‘Small Moon’. Who attacked you?” He pointed at the damaged wing. “Someone like me?”

No.” ::Angry. Sorrowful:: Dinun saw in his mind a face, clearly human and male but at the same time alien, with small, light-coloured eyes, fleshy nose and skin the sickly milky-white of peeled doem flesh. “Take child relative.” ::Raging::

Dinun rocked back on his heels with the force of Moon’s sudden fury. “That’s a full-blood human. He took…” He tried to puzzle out “child relative”. “Your baby?” A small helpless ball of fuzz appeared in his thoughts. Then a whole scene in some kind of cave or rock shelter. A female Angel giving birth in a group of Angels. The infant being carefully cleaned of blood and birth fluids and dried by rubbing with a piece of fur. Then the baby was handed to a male Angel and…

“In your stomach? How?”

Moon blinked and seemed to consider, then carefully pushed the blankets covering him clear of his body. Dinun helped him free himself. With his belly exposed, Moon used his hand to separate folds of skin Dinun hadn’t noticed before in his panic to stop the Angel bleeding to death. The folds covered bare, pink skin, forming a pouch. The pouch had small protuberances that might be nipples on the inner surface. Dinun had never seen anything like it before on any creature.

Child relative. Safe. Nurture. Teach. Stolen.” ::Raging::

“This human took your baby and shot you? When? Why?”

Dinun saw an image of the sun passing through the sky at a great pace. “Two. Unknown reason. I. Climb. Fall. Down. This. Place.”

“Two days ago.”

There were no full-blood humans on Quarn, not even in the cities. Once there had been, but the great plagues and hundreds of years of interbreeding with the chimeras had completely wiped out the pure line. This was generally considered a good thing, since the full-bloods couldn’t deal so well with the intense background radiation on the planet, nor its lower oxygen level. So where had a full-blood come from, why here, and why take a baby Angel?

Moon plucked at Dinun’s sleeve. “Child relative. Retrieve. Must.”

“I understand, but you’re in no shape to retrieve anything. I need to take you back to the settlement to have that wound looked at.”

Moon pushed him away. “No.” ::Angry. Determined::

“Watch it! Moon, you can’t stand…oh for pity’s sake.” The Angel insisted on getting up and to stop him hurting himself, Dinun had no choice but to help.

Moon swayed as he stood, tugging at the doem skin. “Remove.”

“No, you bloody idiot! You’ve got a broken wing bone.”

Remove. Insist.” ::Irritated::

“You nearly bled to death. Look, I have to change the dressing this evening. Wait until then.”

Child relative. Retrieve. Must.”

Dinun put his hand on Moon’s good shoulder and stared into his eyes. “I understand. I really do. I have kids of my own. But you can’t travel. Not yet. Besides, we don’t know where this guy’s gone.”

You. Understand. No.” An image of other male Angels with their stomachs protruding, presumably with infants in their pouches. “Others. Danger. Help. Must.” ::Pleading::

He had a point. “Sit and we’ll talk. Make a plan. You understand ‘plan’?”

Yes. Haste. Needed.” ::Pleading::

“Yeah, I know, but…look, sit down, will you?” He helped Moon back over to the boulder. “Want some more water?”

Yes.”

Dinun filled the flask and brought over the mug. Moon gulped the water down like he hadn’t drunk a flaskful less than half an hour ago. He seemed a lot perkier, even if his wing and shoulder still appeared to be causing him pain.

Dinun. Others. Find. Help. Must. Urgent.”

“Where are they?”

Moon swept his arm out to indicate “around”.

“Great. Any chance I can reach them on foot or on Almi?”

Moon considered. “No.”

“Even better.” Dinun sighed. “You can’t fly. We need help from my settlement.”

Urgent. Haste.” ::Pleading::

“You,” Dinun said firmly, pointing to the injury, “can’t fly. I can’t fly. Either we go back to Getake or we wait for a month or more for your bones to mend. Do you understand?”

One day come.” Moon frowned. “Tomorrow,” he amended. “Tomorrow. I. Fly.”

“Okay, sure. You’ll just fly out of here on your busted wing.”

Moon stared at him, big green eyes blinking.

“All right. Today you rest, eat, drink. Tomorrow we move. You can either go on your own if you want to be a stubborn son of a bitch, or you can come with me. Okay?”

Haste. Needed.”

“You said that already. Can’t you contact the others with your mind?”

No. Distance. Much. Too far.”

Dinun wondered what the range was. But without telepathy, without Moon’s wings, without knowing where the other males were, or knowing the first thing about who this attacker was and why Angel infants were sought, he had no idea how Moon’s child could be retrieved or the other Angels warned.

He insisted Moon stop picking at the doem skin and take it easy. Another chunk of smoked meat went towards Moon’s apparently insatiable appetite, and while he slept that off, Dinun thought he might as well do a little hunting. Too late in the day to set traps but with his crossbow and the abundant birdlife, he hoped he could bring down enough food to replace what Moon had consumed.

By the time he returned with a belt-full of small waterfowl, he still couldn’t see any alternative to taking Moon back to Getake. A message would have to be sent to Polsa about the presence of full-blood humans, but the army wouldn’t arrive in time to do much good.

Moon was awake and picking at the doem skin again, though not with any serious intent—more as if he was impatient and the motion allowed him to express that.

::Hungry::

“Okay. Man, you’re hard work.”

::Regretful:: “Time of preparation. Child relative.”

“Huh?”

Child relative. Time of preparation. I. Eat. No.”

“You don’t eat while you’ve got the baby with you? That’s crazy.”

Moon didn’t deign to express an opinion on that sentiment. But it sure did explain the ravenous appetite.

Dinun fed him more of the smoked meat from his store, and while the Angel ate, Dinun plucked and cleaned his new kills, setting them to cook over the fire. He caught Moon giving them an avaricious look. “No way. I need to eat too.”

::Regretful. Hungry::

“Yeah, I know. Let me wash my hands and take a look at your wing.”

Moon thrummed with impatience as Dinun fetched the medical kit and slowly unwound the doem skin. The smell of the dried blood on the wing was unpleasant, and he decided he had to clean that off before wrapping Moon up again.

Now for the dressing. “This might hurt. You want something to bite down on?”

No.” Moon’s free hand gripped the blankets.

“Okay. Here goes.”

The dressing stuck on the wound and the fur, which made Moon jerk. Dinun winced in sympathy but kept going, easing the padding off.

“What the…?”

He stared at the half-healed wound. The dressing had been drenched before the blood dried, but the injury itself was no longer bleeding or even oozing. He checked the wing. Under the splints, there was a bump in the bone where the break had been, but no edges or anything to indicate the bone had been broken so badly.

Heal fast. Food. Healing. Need.”

Dinun looked at Moon. “No kidding. But it’s still not strong enough to fly on.”

Tomorrow.” ::Impatient::

“Maybe. Let me clean you up a bit. You smell.”

Yes.” ::Disgusted::

Dinun agreed with that. He set water to warm on the fire and turned the birds on the spit. Moon lay side-on against the boulder, eyes closed, one hand holding his damaged wing close to his body. So it still hurt, however much it had healed. Yet the change in him was remarkable. His colour was good, he had more energy and his thoughts were more ordered. Dinun could almost believe the Angel would fly out of here tomorrow. Almost.

He used a full can of water and still the wing was rusty with blood. Moon kept his eyes closed the whole time and his thoughts to himself. It allowed Dinun to concentrate on the amazing structure of the wing—such a slight construction to hold a creature as tall as Moon aloft. From a distance, it would look as if the wing were covered with feathers, but up close, it was in fact formed from unpigmented skin and the same dense, incredibly soft silvery-white fur as over the rest of Moon’s body. But only on the upper surface. Underneath it was bare, and the only time Moon reacted at all was when he shivered as Dinun accidentally brushed the translucent, naked flesh. Must be sensitive, he realised.

When he brought the second can of warmed water over, Moon carefully extended the wing to make cleaning easier. Now Dinun could appreciate just how long and wide it was, though it folded up to little thicker than Dinun’s arm.

“Beautiful,” he murmured as he wiped the cleaning leather down the silky fur.

::Pleased::

Dinun looked up. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

No. You. Touch.” ::Pleased::

Huh. Knowing that made him rather self-conscious, made him notice the way the fur shone in the afternoon sun, how the skin fluttered each time he stroked it with the leather. When he finally finished and tossed the leather into the bloodied water, ready to empty it away from the camp, he saw a rather more obvious sign of Moon’s enjoyment of the cleaning. The Angel sported a proud and sizeable erection from behind the fold of skin that normally covered his genitals.

“Oh. Uh.”

Moon covered his cock with his hand. “You. Dislike.” ::Regretful::

“No, no…it’s, uh, impressive. Um, very big. In a good way. Excuse me.”

Dinun stood and grabbed the cans of water, bolting over to the stream to dispose of the dirty liquid. “By the spirits,” he breathed as he poured the water from the cans downstream of the collecting point. He reached inside his trousers to adjust himself. It was one thing to give a furtive blowjob or five to the supposedly happily married Kenwil or Rujo behind the stables, or to masturbate in his own bed to memories of men working in the fields, bared to the chest, but he’d never in all his life seen…

It had been beautiful. Perfect and long. Dinun wanted to know what it would taste like. What it would be like to kiss Moon or to feel those elegant Angel lips on his own cock—not that he knew what it was like to have anyone’s mouth on his penis, but he had a pretty fertile imagination. Being the only invert—officially at least—in a little settlement like Getake, it was either imagination or nothing.

His widowed ma, blessed be her spirit, had explained in her own gentle, nonjudgemental way what Dinun’s embarrassed admissions about not really wanting to have sex with girls meant. That it was normal, and certain men and women were just made that way, which was why their society allowed for provider-partners and same-sex troths. Talking to her, he’d felt good about himself. He was different but not wrong.

But then his ma died of a raging infection in wounds she’d sustained working with an injured bolli, and Dinun had lost one of his staunchest supporters before he’d turned twenty. Sora filled the gap a little way, but their relationship was based on commerce more than affection. Without his mother, Dinun had been exposed to the small-minded censure of a small-minded town. He knew more dirty secrets than he bet old Lopi would ever imagine existed, but officially, he was the only male in town who preferred other men.

So what was the Angel doing, exposing himself like that? Offering? Boasting? Having a reaction to the physical stimulus?

Moon was perfect, even with the injury. Angels had a reputation for bewitching all who beheld them, and now Dinun understood why. Moon only had to turn that liquid green gaze on him and Dinun felt like doing anything he asked. Not that this was the reason he was helping, Dinun sternly told himself. The fact that he had a big, beautiful…

Get a grip. Moon was injured and desperate to find his child. Dallying with someone from a different species…race, at least…was probably the last thing on his mind.

Probably.

Dinun rinsed out the cans and the leather, and walked back with fresh water. Moon was eyeing the cooking birds on the fire.

“You’re hungry?”

Yes. You. Anger.” ::Worried::

“No, I’m okay. I uh…was surprised. Not angry. You didn’t do anything wrong. How do you feel? The wing, I mean.”

Pain. Small.” ::Relieved::

“Good. Here, have some of this.”

He set a plate of cooked fowl meat on Moon’s good side so he could eat while Dinun finished dressing and binding the injury. Amazingly, even the burn marks seemed to be fading. All this would have fascinated his mother. Dinun didn’t have the training to describe accurately what was going on. He suspected if he tried, it would sound magical, which wouldn’t endear him to the settlement council.

Moon docilely permitted Dinun to bundle him up in the cleaned doem skin. “Tomorrow. I. Fly.” ::Determined::

“Probably.” He finished fastening the clips to keep the skin secure and turned to find himself almost nose to nose with the Angel. “Uh.”

Dinun.” ::Grateful::

“Uh, you’re welcome.” Moon’s huge eyes seemed to draw him in. Dinun couldn’t make himself look away, but then he jumped as Moon lifted his hand to touch his face.

Dinun. Kin.” ::Pleased::

“I suppose we are. I mean, we have the same skin and your fur’s like my hair—”

Moon cut off his nervous babbling by the simple application of his lips. Dinun froze in shock. No one had kissed him before, and certainly not—

Moon’s good arm went around him and pulled him closer. Dinun had enough presence of mind not to jostle Moon’s injured side, before he gave himself over completely to the feel of Moon’s firm mouth and eager tongue.

Moon tasted of roast meat and something else that was just him. His tongue sliding against Dinun’s made Dinun shiver, and he didn’t know why lips felt so good against his mouth, when he didn’t think his own were that sensitive. It was like…all of it together was a kind of magic. Not just the lips, or the tongue, or Moon’s hands, or the tingle of excitement as Dinun felt the very edge of Moon’s teeth. It was all of it together, until his mind filled with pleasure, his body coming alive, until every touch made him want to climb inside Moon’s skin just to be closer to him. It was nothing like anything he’d imagined before. Ever read about.

Even in his loose fitting trousers, Dinun felt a bit cramped, urgently needing relief, and against his stomach, Moon’s erection was hard and insistent with the Angel’s little thrusts making it clear what Moon wanted. But Dinun had never…

He slid down Moon’s silky legs until he was face to face with the long slender cock, so dark and perfect. This, he was confident he could do right. He’d had enough practice behind those stinky old stables.

Moon stroked Dinun’s face as he sucked, determined to make this the best blowjob he’d ever given. None of the men in the settlement had ever touched him or kissed him, had even spoken to him as they pushed him to his knees. Moon didn’t speak either but Dinun was immersed in pleasure coming from his companion, assured of his value by the gentle caresses, the intense desire and approval Moon sent in pulses towards him. Dinun stroked behind Moon’s cock where the small, tight balls were hidden by more luscious fur, dared to explore the swell of narrow buttocks and the tight cleft. But it was Moon’s cock that fascinated him. Sweetly shaped and sensitive to the lightest pressure, it responded to every caress, every slight movement, shivering and jumping as Moon shivered and jumped. Dinun thrilled at the reactions he wrought, so different from the stolid grunts and ignorant thrusts of the men in the settlement.

Moon came in one tidy, polite spurt and a flute-like vocalisation, shockingly loud after his habitual silence. Dinun swallowed and licked the unfamiliar but not unpleasant taste, resting his head on Moon’s thigh until the Angel got his breathing under control. Then Moon tugged Dinun up again so he could kiss him and pet his earlobe affectionately.

You.” ::Grateful::

“You’re welcome,” Dinun whispered, his voice all husky from emotion. Spirits help him, Moon was beautiful.

Moon tugged insistently at Dinun’s pants but didn’t seem to know what to do to release him. Dinun quickly undid his belt and buttons, pulling his erection free. “Please?”

His wanton need washed away all embarrassment at being so bold but Moon sent a little wave of admiration at the sight of him, which made Dinun flush hot and feel like a giant among men, all at the same time.

Moon kissed him again as he put his hand on Dinun’s cock, Dinun kneeling spread-legged to give him access. It didn’t matter that this was the only way Dinun had ever come. What mattered was that it was someone else’s hand for once, and a hand of someone who responded to him as a person, not a dirty, secret convenience. Moon’s grip was strong and knowing, his mouth commanding Dinun as his hand stroked Dinun to a quick but powerful climax that left Dinun panting and hungry for…something.

Something more, he guessed. The appetite woken in his belly would not be sated with a handjob, but it was more than a start.

Blessed spirits. He’d just had sex with an Angel. He’d just had sex. At the age of twenty-eight, he was no longer a virgin. Mostly not, anyway.

He’d had sex with an Angel. Wow.

Unconcerned by Dinun’s amazement, Moon flicked Dinun’s come off his hand and pulled him into a hug. Skinny as the Angel was, Dinun might have thought he’d be bony, but the fur was like a warm cushion and amazingly comfortable to nestle against. Cuddling was another new thing for Dinun—at least, it was since his mother died.

You. Sad?”

“No…just remembering my mother.”

Female. Adult relative.”

“Yeah.” He pulled his pants up a bit, then sniffed. Burning…meat. “Oh crap, supper!”

He launched himself towards the fire and rescued the remaining birds, though they were rather scorched on one side. He dumped them into a clean food pail and gave Moon a sheepish look. “Guess you’re hungry again?”

You. Eat. I. Waiting.”

“We can share. Here, um, clean your hand…” He handed Moon the cleaning leather and Moon delicately wiped his fingers and a bit of his fur where he’d earlier spilled some fragments of meat. Dinun took the leather back and filled Moon’s plate with more roast bird.

They ate in silence, Moon not even sending emotions Dinun’s way. Almi shuffled back, having fed and drunk to her heart’s content and now looking for a nice comfortable place to sleep.

Sleep.

Last night Dinun had slept at Moon’s side but it hadn’t been at all erotic, with him almost certain he’d wake up next to a corpse. Tonight…

Were they lovers now? Dinun didn’t know the etiquette in these situations, and Moon was giving nothing away. He’d been gentle and affectionate but maybe he was always like that. What had it meant to the Angel? Sex didn’t mean anything to the men in the settlement other than pure physical release. Dinun really shouldn’t read anything into it now, especially when he was dealing with a creature so alien to him.

Moon lifted his head, still sucking grease from his fingers. “You. Unhappy?” ::Curious::

“Um, no. I, uh…never really had sex with anyone before. Not, uh…someone making me come.”

You. Child? Young?” ::Confused::

“Me? No! I, uh…” Dinun sighed. “Never mind. I enjoyed it. Did you?”

Yes.” ::Pleased:: He handed Dinun his plate. “Tomorrow. Child relative. Find. Yes.” ::Determined::

Dinun had almost forgotten about the stolen infant. Of course Moon had other things on his mind right now than Dinun’s virginal uncertainty. “Sure. We’ll try. Oh, I wanted you to look at my map.”

Map?” ::Confused::

Dinun paused as he was about to stand. Crap. Angels probably didn’t read or write. Maybe they didn’t do pictorial stuff at all. Still, he could try.

He had to do up his pants and belt, which made him flush, remembering why. Moon gazed up at him serenely. Dinun envied him that calm confidence, even if it was all appearance and no substance. People could tell what Dinun was thinking just by looking at him most of the time. Sora said he had one of the most open faces of anyone she knew. Moon’s expression barely changed no matter how agitated he became. Useful, that.

Using the kinetic lamp since the shadows had grown so deep, Moon gazed with intense curiosity but no comprehension at Dinun’s map. “It’s a picture of what this place looks like from above,” Dinun explained.

This. Wrong.” Moon tapped the map. “Colours. Wrong.” ::Amused. Puzzled::

“See, it’s like…” Dinun picked up his drinking cup and turned it upside down on the ground. “This is the real cup.” Then he lifted it, leaving a circular impression in the dirt. “Picture of where the cup was.” He traced his fingers down the outline of the Helme Hills. “This is the picture of the hills. This is that stream over there.” He pointed to a place close to the stream mark. “Where you and I are now.”

Moon gazed at the map for a long time in silence, clearly thinking. Dinun racked his brain as to how he could explain the concept better to his companion, but he couldn’t come up with anything.

But finally Moon touched the paper. “Others. Here. Here. Here. You. Me. Here?” ::Uncertain::

“This is us. And this is where your other males are? Are you sure?”

Yes.” ::Determined::

If Moon was right, the actual locations were inaccessible by cart and probably even by foot. But he could get Moon a little closer, and maybe with his telepathy he could call to his friends. “Tomorrow we’ll give it a try. But if we can’t find them, we’ll go to my settlement for help.”

No. Me. Settlement.” ::Determined::

“You go to the settlement? Oh, your settlement. Where?”

The question distressed Moon, and Dinun couldn’t figure why until he realised the location was off the map. “I have another. Wait.”

With the larger-scale map, Moon located his settlement almost fifty quen from their present location. Nearly two days’ run in the cart.

“Can you fly that kind of distance with your wing?”

No. Strong. No.” ::Sorrowful. Angry::

Dinun gently stroked Moon’s arm in comfort. “I’ll take you.”

Child relative. Find. Must. Urgent.” ::Angry::

“Yeah, but if you can’t fly far and you can’t find your friends, then you need your other folk. We’ll find him. We’ll try anyway.”

Child relative. Hurt. Possible.” ::Sorrowful::

“If he is, then there’s nothing we can do about it. Moon, you have to relax, let yourself heal. Getting all worked up won’t find your kid any faster.”

Moon gave him a long look, then struggled to his feet.

“Where are you going?”

Piss. Urgent.” ::Irritated::

“Oh. Want the lamp?”

No. See. Good.” ::Irritated::

“Okay, cranky pants. The latrine’s over there.”

Moon walked off without replying.

Dinun sighed and shook his head. Moon was in a difficult situation, but it was hardly Dinun’s fault.

He had some clearing up to do if they were leaving in the morning, and the used dressing needed to be soaked clean so it could be boiled. He should really dump the low-grade treten if they were to make any speed, and he wondered if the doem skin would be in a fit state to take back after using it as a bandage. This situation sure wasn’t going to make him rich, but some things were more important than money, and like his ma, he had a soft spot for wounded creatures. Even crabby ones who didn’t talk but who had a good line in meaningful stares.

He’d made fresh tea and decanted most of it, and was sitting back against Almi, drinking a last cup before sleeping, when Moon reappeared with a leather pouch and strap dangling from his hand.

“What’s that?”

Mine. Tools.”

“Oh. Can I see?” For some reason he didn’t figure Angels made tools, but then he didn’t know much about their level of sophistication at all. That Moon had worked out the purpose of a map in very short order had to mean they weren’t short of brains, at the very least.

Moon hunkered down and opened the pouch attached to the belt. Inside was a stone knife attached to hard wood, a small bone comb, a leather water bottle and a wallet, which Moon opened to reveal strips of dried meat inside. Not much to survive on but if Angels could fly to wherever prey or water was, then they didn’t need to carry much. Wouldn’t want to carry much.

“You have more stuff where you were hiding with the baby?”

Small. Unimportant.” He gestured high above them to where the nest presumably sat.

“I wonder how the human got up there.”

Human. Fly. How. Unknown.” ::Confused. Sorrowful. Angry::

“Fly? You mean with a machine?”

Machine?” ::Confused::

“Never mind. Did you break your wing when you fell?”

No. I. Protect. Child relative. Human. Hit.” In his mind’s eye, Dinun saw Moon’s bloodied wing covering his body and presumably the baby, and the human male using considerable force to try and make him reveal the child. “Save. No.” ::Angry::

“You tried. He probably outweighed you by about forty sak. Hell, I outweigh you by that much. You did your best.”

Kill. Human.” ::Determined::

Dinun didn’t hold with killing, but right now wasn’t a good time to argue with Moon about it. “Don’t blame you a bit, but let’s get your baby back and safe first. I’ll help you, Moon. Don’t be angry with me.”

Angry. You. No. Angry. Me. Yes.” ::Sorrowful::

Dinun crawled over to where Moon crouched, and carefully put his arm around him. The Angel leaned into his hug and put his chin on Dinun’s shoulder.

“Should rest,” Dinun whispered. “If you want to fly tomorrow.”

Fly. Yes.” ::Determined::

“I know. Come on.”

It was so easy and comfortable to let Moon tuck himself up against Dinun, his head on Dinun’s arm. It felt a little like when Kaji would fall asleep on him, when he minded her for Sora. Innocent, strangely, but with something else which wasn’t childlike at all. Even fully clothed, Dinun appreciated the feel of Moon’s long body, and he wondered if he’d ever know what it was like to lie naked next to him, to have that soft fur against his skin. What did it feel like to another Angel?


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