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Mountain Runaways

Chapter One

Edge of Willmore Wilderness Park in west-central Alberta, Canada

It’s the family’s last day together, but nobody knows that yet. Nobody knows anything except that they’re all tired after a full day of February snowshoeing on the mountain above their log house, and that the mist is floating down, wrapping all five in a shroud. They can’t even see their tiny mountain town of Peakton below.

Jon’s snowshoes crunch to a stop as he squints through the blanket of white. His father’s face, ruddy as his wool scarf, turns to Jon and his siblings, Korka and Aron.

“So, kids, what do we do when visibility is bad?” Dad asks. “Stay put,” Jon says with full confidence. As if he even needs to be asked. At seventeen, he knows more than most of the adults who file through his parents’ two-week wilderness-survival courses. “Or —”

“— use a compass if there’s still a sightline left,” his younger sister, Korka, finishes for him, flipping her thick blond braid back with gloved fingers, her blue eyes sparkling. At fourteen, she annoys Jon with her constant attempts to prove herself.

The two watch Aron plop down in the snow with the angelic smile of an eleven-year-old. It’s his way of saying that when you’re fogged in, you should stay where you are. And who cares about weather, anyway? If you’re with the only four people who matter to you in the world, all is well.

“Good, kids,” their mother, bundled in a parka, says in her enthusiastic teacher’s voice. “And why do we not just continue to march forward?”

“Because without a compass —” Jon begins.

“— we’ll end up going in a circle without meaning to,” Korka finishes.

Aron rolls onto his back and kicks one leg up in the air like a baby moose trying to right itself, chuckling as his snowshoes send white stuff flying.

Their mom interprets: “Because we all have one leg slightly longer than the other, which means no matter how hard we try, we can’t walk in a straight line without a sightline or compass.” She leans down to tickle Aron through his padded snow vest. “Good answer, my young Viking.”

Jon watches Aron wrap his mittens around her ankles and tug her off-balance, sending her into the snow beside him. She screeches with laughter, and they create synchronized mother-and-son snow angels. Warmth radiates through Jon’s chest. It’s always good watching Aron come out of his shell.

“We have a compass,” Korka declares, folding her arms and frowning at her dad like she’s keen to get home.

She’s always got places to go, things to do, Jon reflects. Fog’s not about to slow her down.

Jon, on the other hand, is happy to linger in the soup. Not only does he love an outdoor navigation challenge, but up here, there’s no phone reception. That means he doesn’t have to listen to whiny apologies from his date from hell at the Valentine’s Day dance the previous evening. Maybe today’s fog can obliterate the recurring flashback of the high school gymnasium strewn with crepe paper and the echo of her harsh words as she dumped him, shouting over the racket of a musically challenged band.

All he’d suggested was ditching the dance and going to the local café for a bite. Okay, maybe he put it too strongly. He’d felt so claustrophobic in the overwarm, overlit, jarringly noisy gym that he insisted they get out of there. She seemed to take it the wrong way, like girls always do.

“No way. We came to dance. Stop ordering me around. Like you did last week when you dragged me up a slope on a stupid, freezing ‘walk.’ We’re done. Go find a girl who likes a bossy tyrant.” After another fifteen minutes of arguing, she stalked off.

When he looked for her to apologize, he found her in a dark corner making out with some other guy.

So, being wrapped in a heavy cloud pretty much suits his mood. Besides, the last thing he wants is to get home and be yanked into his father’s home office. “You’re the oldest, and the most responsible, the one with a good head for marketing and numbers,” his dad likes to say. “We need you to help run the survival school as soon as you graduate.”

In a few months he’ll march across the stage at Peakton High School. But for now, he’s hopelessly clinging to his own plan for the future. He knows his parents can’t afford to send him to college, but they only shake their heads when he begs them to let him get his emergency medical technician — EMT — certification this summer, a course he’s been studying for every minute of his spare time. An EMT job could earn him decent money, and he’d be able to save lives in the great outdoors that he loves so much.

“Sorry, Jon,” his dad has said a million times, frowning. “The survival school needs you, immediately. More work, less play when you graduate, son. It’s all about earning enough to feed the family.”

Jon sighs. The family. A family enveloped in fog at the moment and, unknown to his younger siblings, in debt.

“Let’s turn around already!” Korka demands. “I want to get home in time for my Krav Maga session!”

“Hmm, not till you demonstrate something you’ve learned from that martial arts class,” Dad says with a smile.

“It’s not technically martial arts, Dad. It’s a tactical defence system,” she declares with her usual pout.

Jon rolls his eyes.

“Okay,” Dad says, grinning and raising protective arms in front of his face.

The words are barely out of his mouth when Korka thumps him on the back of his neck with the palm of her hand. Not enough to hurt him, but enough to surprise him. He drops his tall, lanky frame overdramatically into the snow, playing along.

“See how I kept my elbow in front of my ribs, rather than let you expect the blow by pulling my arm back?” she asks proudly. “So you couldn’t see it coming!”

Dad rubs his neck and grins. “Got that right,” he says.

Laughter filters through the gauzy air between them. Then Dad leaps back up and faces her with his head lowered. Jon barely hears his next words. “I’m sorry you’ll have to miss the summer sessions. We just can’t afford them anymore.”

She pulls away and crosses her arms. “Maybe I can ask Mrs. Alpern if I can pay for them by cleaning her basement studio every day.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Dad says, patting her arm.

Really? Jon thinks. We have to mention money stuff even up here? Still, his father has found a chance to get out of his office to spend some family time outdoors. Which is good but kind of sad, considering his business is being outdoors and teaching its mysteries to others. The family’s survival school has been low on customers and cash for a while. Barely surviving (okay, that wasn’t funny). Mostly because Mom and Dad are better at teaching what they love than at the business end, Jon figures.

Korka helps Aron leap up and dust off the snow, then wraps him in a warm hug that brings out a wide grin. The kind of high-beam smile that Aron gets when reading his books on Viking heroes. “Okay,” says Dad. “I say we escort Korka home to get ready for her lesson as soon as the three of you demonstrate your snow-pit competence, which will assure us that all is safe for a return using our compasses.”

“Compasses are no good now that we’ve lost our sightline,” Korka says, nose scrunched up like she’s caught him out on a trick question.

“According to our last sightline a few minutes ago, home is one hundred forty degrees southeast of where we stand right now,” Jon says quickly, proudly.

“Exactly, son. Well done. So, we use our compass.”

None of them wants to do a snow pit, Jon figures, but they know their parents too well to bother protesting. Obediently, they drop to their knees and, using their hands and small shovels, start shovelling snow on the slope to the side of their path. The idea is to check the stability of the snowpack. It’s like digging a little hole a ski-length wide and knees-to-head height, then slicing off a side like it’s a piece of layer cake in need of inspection. Like preparing to poke fingers into the icing and cake layers to see if any part is so doughy or slippery that one layer might slide off another.

Within minutes, there are three side-by-side minipits. The siblings compete to finish, brushing their mittens vertically across the face of the pits, checking which layers are crusty and weak enough to crumble and which are hard enough that their fingers, fists, a pencil, and maybe even a knife won’t go through.

“Aron, you’re not digging a hole to China,” Mom says.

“Nope. He’s digging to Iceland,” Jon says, making Aron smile. His Viking-obsessed little brother would definitely prefer to dig a hole to one of the Nordic countries.

Jon glances at Korka. She’s crawling around in her tiny pit, shoving her arms into the weak layers.

Aron is smelling his, and chewing thoughtfully on some of the snow. Aron likes to do things a little differently. But when it comes down to instincts, Jon would pretty much trust his little brother with his life.

Once the pit walls are smooth and vertical, the three get to their feet, dust themselves off, and reach for the ice saw on the end of Dad’s ski pole. Korka gets her hands on it first. She conducts her stability tests, then hands it to Jon.

“It’s all good,” she says, hands on her hips.

Jon chops out a study block roughly fingers-to-elbow length and places Dad’s shovel on top of the column. Then he taps the top of the shovel, first lightly, then harder, till his cube fractures.

“Compression test hard, which is good,” he rules. “Low danger.” Unlike his siblings, he has had a full avalanche-training course.

An impatient Aron grabs the shovel from Jon, completes his test, and offers a thumbs-up. He can speak — he just prefers not to. That’s how it’s been ever since the three siblings had a childhood misadventure that their parents never found out about, and that Jon figures the other two were too young to remember. It’s a trauma he wishes he could forget, too.

“You’re all correct. Low avalanche danger between here and home,” Dad confirms.

A nearby crunch of snow startles them. Two large, shadowy figures on cross-country skis emerge from the mist.

“Ha!” bellows Officer Greg Vine, the absolute last person Jon wants to see right now. He’s the cop father of the girl he took out last night.

Greg’s brother David, equally big and muscle-bound as his brother, pauses behind him.

“Got your kids on their knees praying for the mist to blow away, Gunnar and Eva?” Officer Vine asks. “Is that a strange Icelandic tradition? Or is this snow-pit school?”

As if we need schooling on snow pits, which we’ve been making all our lives, Jon thinks.

“They’re practising their snow pits, Greg,” Dad replies breezily. “Remember, kids, always dig them on a slope that’s the same aspect and angle as the slope you’re about to travel across, without triggering an avalanche.”

“We know that, Dad,” Jon says.

“Of course you do.” He grins and turns back to the men. “Are we on for skiing first thing tomorrow morning, gentlemen?”

“Storm coming in, so it depends on conditions,” Officer Vine replies, his dark eyes on Jon. As Jon’s mother and father move ahead out of earshot, the big cop says in a low voice, “Jon Gunnarsson. When you pick my daughter up for a date, I expect you to deliver her home, not ditch her at the dance and make her walk home in the dark.”

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Crown of Feathers Trilogy

Crown of Feathers Trilogy

Crown of Feathers; Heart of Flames; Wings of Shadow
tagged : epic, siblings
More Info
The Starlight Claim

1. The Dream
The dream was waiting for him. Dodge Hoebeek under a thick sheet of crystal-?clear ice, his eyes wide open, his fingers scraping at the glassy ceiling above him, his mouth screaming, bubbles pouring out, and his long blond hair trailing behind him in the black water.
Then somehow the streaming bubbles formed themselves into words. “You gotta come, man! You owe me!” And Nate, kneeling on the ice above his friend, his bare hands flat on the surface?—?frozen to the surface?—???tried to speak but couldn’t, as though he were the one who was drowning.
“You owe me, Nate! It’s your fault!”
“I’m sorry!” Nate shouted. “I’m so sorry!”
It was like he was looking into a warped carnival mirror, unable to say anything, unable to do anything except throw his head back and howl.
He woke up, his heart beating like a two-?stroke engine. Had he really howled? He listened to the ticking stillness. No one was coming, so maybe not. Last fall he’d howled, good and loud. He’d woken, time and time again, with his head pressed to his mother’s chest, her arms around him, his father standing just behind her, his hand on her shoulder, strong and calm.
“I’ve got to find him,” Nate would say. And his mother would shush him. And he’d yell at her. “No! You don’t understand. He needs me. He’s waiting for me up there!” Eventually he would wear himself out. “It’s all my fault,” he’d say. “It’s all my fault.” His voice would grow hoarse and the tears would come and finally he’d lay his head back down on his pillow. His mother would fuss with the covers as if he were a five­year?­old, touch her fingers to her lips and place them on his forehead, a benediction. Then she’d leave the room. But his father would stand there in the dark. Stand guard until he fell asleep. Stand there as long as it took.
2. Escape
It was a daring escape. “Brazen escape,” the TV anchorman called it. Nate watched as two jailbirds attempted to climb a knotted rope hanging from a helicopter.
“Is this for real?” said Nate. His father nodded, his eyes glued to the television. “So how come if they’re filming it, nobody’s trying to stop them?”
“CCTV,” said his father.
Nate leaned against the doorjamb at the entrance to the den. It was late. He was in his pajama bottoms and a ratty Lockerby Vikings T-?shirt. The men weren’t getting very far on their climb toward the chopper. They were about as athletic as a ­couple of filing cabinets.
“Not exactly James Bond,” said Nate.
His father chuckled.
The helicopter began to rise with the two guys hanging on for dear life. Up, up they rose toward the roofline of the jail that surrounded the yard on all four sides. The closed-?circuit camera was in a fixed position, and soon enough the dangling criminals were whisked out of view. And then there was a new camera in play, the TV station camera, presumably, outside the jail. But there were no criminals or helicopter in sight, obviously. This was later. The camera was following the path the helicopter might have taken across a city covered in snow.
“Whoa!” said Nate as the scenery beyond the enclosed compound came into view. “Is that here?”
His father nodded. “The Sudbury Jail.”
There were other shots of police roadblocks on various highways out of town, and then the news returned to the talking head with the frozen image of the escape on a screen behind him. Nate’s dad pushed the mute button.
“I don’t blame them one bit,” he said.
“The convicts?”
“Uh­huh. That place is disgusting. Overcrowded, understaffed. And the mice? The place is completely infested.”
Nate stared at his father. “Dad, is there something you want to tell me?”
His father held up his hands. “Busted,” he said. “Yeah, I spent some time in the stony lonesome.”
The grin gave him away. “Only as a visitor.”
“Oh,” said Nate, relieved but sort of disappointed. Burl Crow was the most decent, upstanding guy imaginable. It would be kind of cool if he had a shady past. Then again, maybe he did. “Visiting who?”
His father shook his head slowly, back and forth. He was looking toward the television but he had one of those thousand-?yard stares on his face, the kind of blank, unfocused gaze of someone looking into the past. Then he snapped out of it.
“What are you doing up?” he said.
“Uh?­uh,” said Nate. “You’re not getting off the hook that easy.”
His father raised his eyebrows, trying to look parentally threatening but missing by a mile. Then he patted the couch next to him. Nate slouched into the room and sat down.
“My dad,” said Burl. “Your grandfather.”
“Oh, right.” Nate had never met his grandfather, but he knew a bit about him. The burn on his father’s right arm: that was thanks to Calvin Crow.
“What was he in for?”
His father laughed. “You name it. Arson for one thing, drunk and disorderly, aggravated assault, petty larceny?—not?­so-?petty larceny.”
“What’s larceny?”
“Taking what isn’t yours. That’s my old man to a T.” He put his hands together thoughtfully. “He was a thug, ­Nathaniel. Bad news.”
“Did he die?”
“Haven’t heard.”
Nate frowned. “When was the last time you saw him?”
His father shrugged. “Five or six years ago, I guess. He was in for carjacking that time. He wanted me to bail him out and I had to draw the line. Not anymore. We’re done.”
He turned to Nate and tapped him on the knee. “What’s up, son? I thought you went to bed an hour ago.”
Nate let his head flop back onto the top of the couch. Closed his eyes.

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