Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Today is the release day for Autumn Windsong! Its a wonderful way to start the day. Here is the first chapter to get things started!
The sound of a single shot echoed and re-echoed through the darkness of the early Alaskan morning. Alita Wickstrom bolted awake, her silky dream shattered as the connection to her soulmate severed with brutal cruelty. She blinked her sleepy eyes a couple of times before they became wide with realization as she listened for a split second to her dogs howl with frenzied fervor. Poachers on her land, and close too! Catapulting herself up, she tore back the blankets, thrust herself into jeans and yanked a wool sweater over her head. With confused trepidation, she pulled on a thick snowsuit, hat, and boots and jammed her gloves in a deep pocket. When her trembling hand was on the door, her eyes fell on the long Winchester rifle standing in the corner. She hated that gun but begrudgingly carried it for protection anyway. She tucked it under her arm and slipped an extra magazine in her pocket as she stumbled out the door, letting it slam, the comfort and safety of her little cabin behind her. She inhaled the pure stinging air, wincing when the sub-zero temperatures bit into her exposed cheeks as she ran to the kennels.
The dogs yipped and yelped with crazy anticipation from the unexpected sound, and on its heels, the excitement of seeing Alita appear so abruptly. They bounded and banged against their kennels on their hind legs, sensing her shaken demeanor and eager to be with her. She laid the gun in the basket of the long wooden sled as she prepared the leads for the dogs. The full Blood Moon lit her way in pale, wan light, as she unlatched the first kennel and took Jezebel out. Jezebel quieted and licked Alita’s hand with a contrasting warm tongue. Alita gave her noble head a soft pat. One by one Alita pulled them out, slipped leather booties on their paws and harnessed them to the towline. The chore was an easy one that came from a lot of experience of harnessing in the darkness, and the dogs
obediently remained in their positions behind the leaders, Jezebel and Jack, trembling with restrained excitement.
“Line out!” Alita called to Jezebel and Jack; they stepped forward and took up the slack on the towline as she added each dog to its position in line until all eight dogs were in position. She shoved her frozen hands into her gloves and jumped onto the runners, barely catching them as the sled moved forward.
“Mush!” A turmoil of excitement streaked through her body with every hammer of her heart; adrenaline both warmed and sparked her mind as a thousand scenarios of “what ifs” played through her imagination. It angered her that people would be killing animals on her land, especially without permission. It was something else that nagged at her, though, the fear of the unknown and the feeling of something gone wrong, that forced her to put herself into jeopardy. That coiling gut feeling of instinct gave her the charge to ignore her own physical discomforts and follow the invisible line that drew her forward.
The sled bolted forward, hissing on runners, over the vast sparkling white meadow. The dogs plunged and bound over the fresh powder, yelping as they went along. The well-traveled course led to the forest’s edge where the darkness swallowed them in. The dogs knew the trail well and traveled it with ease. She had little to no fear with them; her pack was her loyal protectors. They quieted as the sharp jump of energy began to mellow. Panting dogs and the swish of her runners in the snow were the only sounds. Even the wintering birds and animals lent to the quiet, though it wasn’t yet winter. The morning’s occurrence had left all the creatures frightened and wary of any intruder in their world.
Through the lacing canopy of naked branches, pink blushed the dark periwinkle skyline, marking the beginning of the new day. The nervous twist in her belly goaded her forward, past where she usually turned back. She looked for a fallen animal, hoping it wasn’t what her gut told her it was. It was then she spotted a familiar shadow, and her heart sank. The long stretched shadow of a deer’s face, a large rack of antlers, the lean shape of a large buck, tangled in the brush.
Alita gave the quiet command to stop them. “Whoa…” Her heart pounded as she sprang from the sled and stumbled through the deep powder before the dogs stopped. There, on the other side of the fallen branches, lay the downed form. With guarded caution, she stepped closer. Her heart pounded fiercely, in fear for the beloved buck of her dreams. But it was not the shadow of a deer; instead, it was a large and unexpected beautiful creature lying motionless in her forest. It was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, caught in the brambles and unconscious.
She felt the tension of a familiar connection grip her, as it often had in the web of her dreams, and she knew in her heart it was him. “No!” Alita gasped and plunged through the loose snow to find him, plowing through the dried and brittle brambles to where he lay. Ripping off her gloves, she pushed them into her pockets and fell to her knees. Cradling his face in her hands, she was relieved when a deep groan erupted from his chest. His skin felt warm; she breathed a sigh of relief. He was alive. Her eyes went to the contrasting tufts of white down wafting from a small hole on his shoulder. Her bare fingers found a small patch of slippery wetness; holding them up, she saw the darkened blood on her fingers and staining the feathers and shoulder of his coat. Then her eyes went to the dark embroidered badge that identified him as an Alaskan game warden. Pushing down the rising panic, she unzipped the zipper a small length with trembling fingers and looked beneath. The filtered light was too dim to see anything against the black shirt, but a dark, wet stain was spreading through the stiff uniform fabric.
“Can you hear me?” She spoke in an unsteady soft voice by his ear.
“Yes.” He groaned again.
“Can you tell me what happened?” She fought to keep her voice strong.
“No.” He groaned again.
She placed her arm under his head. “I need your help, I can’t lift you alone and you can’t stay here. Come on, I need you to sit up.” She wrapped her arm around his broad back as he moved to sit up. “That’s it, now stand and lean on me. My sled is just over there. I have a nice warm cabin not too far away with a nice warm bed and a fire.” She knew she
was encouraging herself as well as this stranger. She did her best to balance him on her small frame as he leaned heavily on her when he stood. With slow steps, they staggered their way to the sled as the stranger gasped in pain with each step.
“I’m sorry, I really hate to move you without getting help for you first, but it’s the best I can do right now. Better to be safe than sorry.” When they made it to the sled, he slid from her grasp into the basket of the sled and was still. Alita tucked his dangling legs in the best she could, then hurried to cover him with the blanket she always kept there. Her pack stood watching the trees, ears pricked forward. Their hair stood on end as a warning growl rumbled low in their throats. Alita’s eyes darted around, scanning for any immediate danger. She felt it around her, pressing in like an ominous cloud of doom. She hurried faster, getting the game warden secured in the basket. Finally done, she pulled her gloves back on and jumped on the sled, glad for the first time that she had the old Winchester with her.
“Come! Gee!” The command had the dogs turning around and bolting to the light edge of the forest and into the sparkling snow again.
“Mush! Come on, guys! Let’s go!” She felt the little hairs on the back of her neck prickle as the dogs growled while they ran. The edge of light came into view, prodding the dogs to move faster. They lunged to the edge and the forest spat them into the welcome brightness of the meadow. They strained against the unaccustomed extra weight in the loose powder, but home was in their sights, along with their warm kennels and food. The level clearing was faster going and they reached the cabin in record time as the dogs followed their own tracks home. As soon as the sled stopped next to the kennels, they threw themselves onto the snow with tongues lolling.
Alita jumped from the runners and went to the ranger again. He was lying too still and much too quiet. No sounds came from him now as she hovered over him, listening, searching for any signs of life still left in him. She rubbed his legs, fearful hypothermia would set in faster than she could help him.
“Come on. Wake up!” A groan rewarded her efforts.
“That’s it, come on!” She reached for the hand of his uninjured arm and pulled on him until he responded by sitting up slowly. He began to pitch forward in a somersault. Alita leaned all of her weight against him, catching his scent. For a split second, while she balanced him, she recognized his scent, for it had teased her in so many dreams. Struggling hard, she managed to prop him against her and pull him up to standing. They stumbled forward to the cabin and burst inside. There was only a second for Alita to consider where to put him—in her bed.