A moment of inattention, one foot put wrong, and suddenly the ground gave way under her. Arihnda Pryce gasped, scrambling desperately for a handhold. Her flailing hand managed to grip the edge of the treacherously steep path she had been more climbing than walking down, but it crumbled under her fingers, and then there was nothing to prevent her slide down the steep mountainside.
She just had time to hope her anti-impact shield generator would engage when something slammed into her from below, knocking the wind out of her. Blinking and dazed, she struggled to catch her breath.
I had heard the mountains of Alderaan were breathtaking, but this is ridiculous.
With a gasp and a cough, she finally started breathing again. Several urgent lungfuls later, she began patting at her surroundings, and finding them solid, she gingerly turned her head to look around. Beneath her was a ledge, curved snuggly against the mountainside, and just wide enough to break her fall. She was aching and uncomfortable, but there didn’t seem to be any serious damage. The thick winter clothing that was obligatory at this altitude had been enough to cushion the impact.
Carefully, she sat up and took inventory. The shield generator sat idly at her belt, but appeared undamaged. The fall must have been just too short for it to kick in. She still had her backpack, but her hiking staff was lost. And her hands were shaking with the aftermath of the adrenaline surge.
Stars above, mom and dad would have fits if they knew I spent my semester as an exchange student falling down mountains. Definitely not telling them of this in the next holo home.
Arihnda huffed, and removed her backpack so she could sit with her back to the wall, legs crossed in front of her as she tried to calm her breathing and waited for the shaking to subside. As the minutes passed she looked out over the vista below her. Springtime on Alderaan was beautiful. Above, the blue mountains were crowned in ice and snow, and skirted with the bright green of new growth. The bright ribbon of a river wound its way through the valley below, toward the unseen ocean.
Restored at last, Arihnda shouldered her backpack again, and wound her favorite scarf properly back in place around her neck and lower face. The path above was tantalizingly close, but the mountainside was sheer, and offered little in the way of handholds. Weighing her options, she decided to follow the edge where it bent out of sight around the mountainside, hoping to find a safer place to climb back to the path.
Cautiously moving on hands and knees, she navigated the ledge. It narrowed uncomfortably, then widened again. Glancing over the side, she spotted a promisingly rough stretch of mountain that might let her climb with reasonable ease down to the path that had zig-zagged back into view below her.
As she scooted toward her chosen spot, there was a brief light at the corner of her eye. She paused, turning her head... There it was again--some reflected light from among two rocks at the very end of the ledge. Something metallic? Giving in to curiosity, she crawled closer.
Nestled between the rocks was a silvery figurine, about the size of her palm.
She reached out, brushing some gravel and dirt off its surface, then lifted it out carefully. It was heavier than expected, and she resettled herself to hold it in both hands and study it closer. "Well then, what are you when you are at home?"
The figurine, she realized, was in the stylized shape of some bird of prey, wings outspread and arching over its head, sharply taloned feet forward. As if diving for some quarry, perhaps? It was heavier than actual silver. A heavy metal, or weighted in some way? The eyes were gemstones, bright faceted red that caught the light as she turned the figure around.
"Whatever you are, you’re certainly pretty. I think I will take you back to the university so Professor Nnedi can have a look at you. She likes arty stuff."
Decision made, she tucked the figurine into an inner pocket of her jacket for safekeeping, then started a careful climb down.
It was harder than it had looked, some footholds giving way and forcing her to move sideways in search of new ones. She moved almost in parallel to the path below for several minutes, starting to tire in a rather worrying way. And the sun was getting low – she needed to get off the mountain before night fell. Clenching her jaw, she decided to risk speeding up her climb, trying to angle it more directly down.
As she stretched precariously, reaching for the next handhold, the rock under her foot came loose with an ominous crack, and for the second time that day she found herself in free fall.
Kriff kriff kriff kr...
... and then her shield generator activated with a loud whine and a pop of displaced air, and after a few heartbeats her steep fall was broken by a gentler impact than before– followed by a sharp exclamation from beneath in a language she did not know.
As the shield collapsed, she found herself sprawled on top of someone as bundled up in Alderaanian winter clothing as herself, hat and goggles and scarf obscuring their face entirely, making muffled sounds as they pushed at her.
"Oh stars, I am so sorry! I didn’t mean to fall on you! Are you all right? I had a shield, I barely felt it... oh my, I don’t know what happens to somebody who is hit by a shield! Please be all right!" There was brief scuffle and confusion as they sorted their respective limbs out and got up to their knees, Arihnda still apologizing profusely and worriedly.
The other person disengaged, waving off her attempts to help, and got unsteadily to their feet. Arihnda leaned against the rock wall, standing herself to face her accidental victim...
...Who pulled the scarf down from his face and pushed his snow goggles up – revealing skin as blue as the skies of Alderaan, and bright yellow eyes that were now studying her curiously. Her heart skipped a beat as a single thought struck her.
Oh no, he’s hot!
And then the stranger spoke, in a deep melodious voice, the words strongly accented but understandable Basic.
"You have certainly made an impact. Do you make a habit of falling from mountains, miss...?"
"Oh! Arihnda. Arihnda Pryce. I really am sorry. And I don’t. Make a habit of it, I mean. It’s only the second time today, and... Oh." She bit her lip, forcing the flow of words to stop as she noticed the amused quirk to the corner of his mouth. "Uhm, never mind."
She straightened her clothing to buy herself some time to gather her wits, feeling her face burn. She couldn’t help but steal another quick look at him as she did. Stunning face, broad shoulders, rather taller than herself – she thought he was older than her, but maybe not a lot older. Probably closer to thirty than her twenty.
He spoke again in that unfamiliar exotic accent. "You are unhurt?"
"Oh, yes, I think so. Will be black and blue tomorrow, but mostly from the first fall." She stumbled to a stop again, suddenly worried she’d said the wrong thing.
He has blue skin, was it wrong of me to say black and blue ? Does he bruise the same colors?
"Bruised, I mean," she added quickly.
He replied drily. "I gathered."
The stranger pulled his own jacket into place, tugging the cap he was wearing further down into his face but not putting the goggles back on. Then he took a step toward a fallen satchel, and visibly winced as he put his foot down, taking a second to find his balance.
Arihnda was mortified. It hadn’t even occurred to her to ask if he was all right. "Oh no, you are hurt! Is it bad? I am so very..."
"Sorry, yes. Apology accepted." He gingerly tried to put weight back on the failing leg, but winced again. "Not broken. But I do believe the ankle is sprained. Most unfortunate. Might I trouble you to get my pack?"
"Of course!" She hurried to pick it up. It was somewhat heavy, but a manageable size. She carried it to him, then frowned in worry. "Oh, but you can’t carry this with a bad leg. You’re barely able to stand on your own. Please, let me carry it for you – ah, where are you going, by the way? I was going to hike down to the shuttle stop further down the valley."
He looked between her and the pack, hesitation writ clearly in his face. Then replied reluctantly. "I had intended to climb to the peak. I was going to paint the sunset over the valley. But it appears I must postpone to another day." He gave the mountainside a calculating look, then added, "I have a rental speeder parked below. Not very far, but given the current circumstances, I will accept your offer, Miss Pryce. And perhaps I can repay you with a lift to the shuttle."
Arihnda was relieved that there was something she could do to help, and slung the satchel crosswise over her body by the carrying strap, shifting it around until it fit with her backpack. The weight was manageable.
Meanwhile, the stranger was testing out the limits of his movements, managing a sort of limping shuffle that looked quite painful.
"Please, don’t put weight on your foot. You can lean on me." The blush returned full force as she spoke. She felt shy and awkward around good-looking men even at the best of times, but her determination to help overrode her reticence.
He was quiet for a moment, then spread his fingers briefly in what must have been a sign of agreement, for he limped closer to her, and put one hand on her shoulder, letting her take some of his weight.
The first few steps were awkward. After he misstepped once and made a muffled sound of pain, Arihnda stopped worrying about her own embarrassment at having a stranger so close, and determinedly put her arm around his waist, taking more of his weight. After that they managed a slightly faster speed down the path.
Arihnda concentrated on her footing and on keeping him stable, sparing no breath for words until the path levelled out. The air already felt warmer compared to the summit, and the extra weight didn’t help. She loosened her scarf with her free hand, and pulled her jacket open to cool down a bit.
The stranger made another muffled sound. She stopped, looking to him in concern. "Is it getting worse? Should we stop?"
"I... think that might be best. A few minutes of rest, and I should be able to go the rest of the distance."
The mossy trunk of a fallen tree was nearby, and Arihnda helped him to sit down. Then she slid the satchel and backpack off, straightening and stretching to get the stiffness out of her body. She was rolling her shoulders back when she realized the stranger was watching her intently.
That treacherous blush immediately rushed back to her face. Attempting to hide it, she went to kneel beside him, face bent to look at his booted feet. "Let me have a look? I learned basic first aid in the loth-cub chapter of the Kid Pathfinders back home. Maybe I can make it better."
He remained silent until she finally looked up, meeting his searching gaze. "Your planet uses children to find paths?" He sounded oddly solemn.
"Oh! Well, no, not literally. It’s... you know, to teach children about the planet? About the plants and animals and safe ways to camp outside and things?"
"I see. And yes, you may." He took his gloves off and leaned down to unfasten the boot, then nearly overbalanced as he attempted to pull it off.
"Oh, do let me help." Removing her own gloves, Arihnda took hold of the boot and tried to pull it off as gently and slowly as possible to avoid hurting him. She appeared to be successful as he remained silent and expressionless. She pulled the sock down enough to see his ankle and gingerly touched it with her fingertips, trying to remember what she had been taught. "It doesn’t seem to be very swollen, the boot came off fairly easily. Can you, uhm, move your toes?"
He solemnly wriggled his toes at her.
"Okay, I think that means... no nerve damage? And not broken? Which is good, since I don’t know how to fix that. But I could wrap the ankle up to give it some support. I was really good at bandaging. They gave me a merit badge for it."
"Did they, now."
She suspected he was smiling at her again, but resolutely refused to look up as she pulled the sock on again. "I would need something... Oh, I know, I can use my scarf."
"I do have a scarf of my own, no need to sacrifice yours."
She glanced up briefly to look at his neck. A thick, warm scarf, possibly some kind of nerf wool.
"Oh, but that is rather too thick. You wouldn’t be able to put your boot on after." She pulled her own scarf off, displaying the shimmering purple length. "This is made of Killik silk. Very thin and very strong. You could put your boot on outside it and have as much support as possible."
She felt a brief pang as she made the offer. The Killik scarf had cost her most of her frivolous spending budget for her stay on Alderaan. It was so beautiful, a shimmering dark purple, like the sky over Alderaan in the last minutes of sunset. She had intended it to be a memento of her months as an exchange student.
Get a grip, Arihnda. It’s only a thing. Material things aren’t really important, not compared to people. You hurt him, it’s the least you can do.
"I shall bow to your expertise, Pathfinder." Oh, now he was definitely teasing her. Why did she have to blush so easily? Grimly, she focused on winding the scarf around and under and across the ankle and instep of his sock, finally tucking the last end in carefully and replacing his boot.
"There. Try to stand on it now?" She rose, offering him a hand in support to get up.
He took her hand, though he rose easily enough without placing any weight on it. And retained his hold for a few heartbeats, blue fingers giving a brief squeeze. "Thank you, it feels much improved already." His hand was warm and dry, the skin at the back oddly smooth though the palms and fingers were calloused. She looked from the hand to his face at last, and their eyes met.
Such strange yellow eyes. And something about the whites of the eyes was off, the color dull, almost reddish. Perhaps that was normal for his species? But they were still beautiful. Her stomach did a small flop, a tingling feeling spreading through it.
"A thought occured while you were tending to my injury." He spoke calmly and matter of factly, interrupting her train of thought, and she finally remembered to let his hand go as he continued. "My speeder is not very far now, perhaps five minutes at normal walking speed. If I gave you the access code, you could fetch it. And we could travel in more comfort to your shuttle stop."
"That... yes, I can do that. That would be good."
He located the small cylinder, offering it to her. "I will wait here, looking after the gear. You can’t miss it, it’s next to the large rock below the steep part of the path that leads here."
She nodded firmly, and hurried off down the path until she was surrounded by spring green trees and birdsong. A small blue bird swooped in front of her, doing a circle of her head before flying off again, and she laughed in startled surprise.
The speeder was as easily located as the stranger had promised. It was a narrow one-man thing, more of a bike, really. Which was fortunate, as it meant she could wrangle it up the path on her own. Getting it up the steeper part of the hill was a challenge, requiring several starts and stops and some patient maneuvers. She could see why he had chosen to leave the speeder at the bottom of the hill. But finally, she was up, and rode the speeder back to rejoin him.
He lifted their gear as she approached, quite steady on his feet now. And limped over to secure it to the back of the speeder.
"Well done. There should be room for both of us if you scoot back a bit and let me drive." He paused. "Or would you prefer to be in front?"
Arihnda opened her mouth, and closed it again, running both scenarios through her mind. Then she cleared her throat and replied. "Ah, the back will be fine, thank you." She scooted back as directed, until she was flush against the stored packs.
The stranger climbed onto the speeder, checking some settings and revving the engine. Looking over his shoulder, he told her. "Better hang on tight, the ground is uneven and this thing doesn’t come with a safety harness." Then he settled the goggles in front of his eyes again, facing forward.
She placed her arms around his waist, trying not to get in the way. Holding on lightly at first, but as the speeder picked up speed and started moving in sharp turns and sudden jolts across the uneven ground, she found herself hugging him harder to prevent herself from being dislodged. Arihnda thought he must be rather inexperienced with speeders; it was as if he hit every single bump and sharp corner possible, and she was clinging fiercely to him by the time they reached the shuttle stop.
"Here we are, Miss Pryce. And just in time, I do believe that is your shuttle." He pushed his goggles up again, looking to the western sky.
His eyes must have been better than hers, for Arihnda couldn’t see anything. But she unclenched her arms and scrambled quickly down, freeing her backpack from the speeder and slinging it over her shoulder.
"Oh, uhm. Thank you for the ride?"
He leaned back on the speeder, flashing her a white smile. "The pleasure was all mine, I assure you." Before she could quite decide how to reply, he put his goggles back on, and added, "Can’t stay, I’m afraid. Do have a safe trip back to town, Miss Pryce." And with a last wave he turned the speeder around, accelerating toward the east.
Arihnda looked after him, flabbergasted at the abrupt parting. As a growing hum in the air signaled the promised arrival of her shuttle, she whispered after the departing figure. "You never told me your name..."