The confrontation took place against a picture-postcard backdrop of vast, snow-covered mountain dwarfing rustic, alpine town.

The young woman was startlingly lovely in face and form, transforming her arctic leggings into the stuff of men's dreams, and the utilitarian upper garments of a lumberjack into a highly promising gift wrapping.

The man facing her, the proprietor of snowmobiles, was her diametrical opposite: squat, toad-faced, grizzled, uncombed, unwashed, and unkempt.

It was like a scene out of mythology: a nymph facing a troll.

"You ever run one of these before, girly?" the troll asked, his manner clearly dismissive of any knowledge and experience she may have accumulated in her relatively short lifespan.

Rarely at a loss, the young woman quickly took up the gauntlet.

"I bet you've got a whiz-bang time machine, Alley Oop," she countered.

The troll looked her in puzzlement. She could sense the antiquated machinery of his brain grinding slowly into motion, in a futile attempt to decipher her remark.

"Huh?" he managed eventually.

"Never mind," she said, somewhat miffed at her failure to pink him. She hated to waste a perfectly good insult on someone too obtuse to comprehend it.

"Yeah, sure," she said, answering his original question. "I've used a snowmobile before. Plenty of times."

Completely ignoring this assurance, the troll ran through his usual introduction for greenhorns, in a gratingly condescending fashion. It was part of his unconscious revenge against feminine youth and beauty for failing to swoon at his feet. Ironically, his manner only ensured that he would remain forever exiled in a lonely hell of his own making, never to experience the miracle of a woman's love.

Minutes later, the unnecessary tutorial over, the young woman stashed her small pack in the snowmobile's cargo box and seated herself on the saddle. The motor, already running, burbled throatily, awaiting her will.

The troll, instinctively feeling that he had not adequately dominated their interaction, was running his brain hot, trying to manufacture a telling parting shot.

"Go easy on the throttle," he grumbled at last.

And this was the best he could manage, she thought. Truly a sad case. As a rearguard, he would have served the enemy well.

The young woman laid her right hand against her heart and lifted one corner of her mouth slightly.

"I promise," she said solemnly.

The troll gave a distempered grunt. Having performed his function, he turned without farewell and began trudging away.

Before he had taken three steps, a merry call reached his ears from behind.

"Hey, asswipe!"

This level of subtlety the troll could comprehend. Through sheer incredulity, though, it took him several seconds to react. At last, outraged, he swung around to confront her.

The young woman was regarding him wryly.

"Don't call me 'girly'," she said sweetly.

Before the troll could think of an appropriate response, she awarded him one of the most dazzling smiles he had ever seen, gunned the motor to maximum, and roared off toward the mountain that loomed above the town.

"Where are you, Mister Matthew Quinn?"

Too long later, the young woman, unsure of her bearings, had halted atop a ridge, from which vantage point she now surveyed the snowy landscape, without helpful result.

Though the afternoon was now well advanced, the mountain was still bathed in sunshine, and she felt comfortably warm.

She mentally reviewed the directions she had been given in town, and shook her head ruefully. They had seemed perfectly clear at the time. Now, however ...

She also recalled the advice she had received, and ignored, to the effect that navigating the mountain could be tricky ... even dangerous.

Not for an instant did she consider turning back. In all ways a passionate woman, and never more so than about her current mission, she was utterly determined to see it through, come what may.

Pick a direction, she thought, any direction.

Trusting instinct, as she so often did, she buzzed off anti-clockwise along the mountain's expansive midriff.

Minutes later, a clump of trees forced her into a circumnavigation. Without slackening speed, she powered around them ... only to be confronted by a house-sized boulder lying in ambush beyond.

Too late to veer, too late to stop.

Instinctively, the young woman's legs straightened with all the strength she could muster, launching her upward in time to depart the careering vehicle before it crashed. She landed with a fair thump, but safely, tumbling and sliding to a halt.

For a moment she lay still, breathing heavily into the snow, then got up to survey the damage.

Fortunately, the boulder's base was shielded by a thick build-up of snow, and it was into this that the machine had ploughed.

The vehicle appeared undamaged, though the motor had stalled. She adjusted the controls and hauled on the starter cord several times, but, while her efforts caused her mount to grunt and sigh, no other sign of life was forthcoming.

On her final attempt, the pull cord snapped, leaving her spread-legged on her rear end.

She stared in disbelief. A smile of wonder broke over her face.

"I'm fucking screwed," she said cheerfully.

That she had reached this state of affairs did not entirely surprise her. She had known all along that she should have prepared better, should in fact have had someone who truly knew what they were doing ferry her to her destination.

As she had done innumerable times before, the young woman shook her head ruefully at her inability to rule her own impulses.

This attitude endured only a moment, after which she squared her shoulders determinedly. Impetuous she might be, but she was also nigh-indomitable in character. Shaking off self-recrimination, she got to her feet and looked around.

She was surprised to notice that she could still see the town, far away and far below.

Something in that scatter of buildings was glinting, reflecting the light of the declining sun. She squinted, and decided it was probably the church spire. From this distance, it was little more than a needle to the eye.

She looked mock-mournfully at the inoperable snowmobile. Some people, she knew, would be inclined turn to prayer in such a case. Well, why not? Diverting her thoughts might give her unconscious mind the opportunity to come up with an effective next step.

She rummaged through her memory, but the prayers she found there aroused only deep irritation at the well-meaning but simple-minded - or possibly cunning and self-serving - clerics and teachers responsible for their presence.

With a sense of irony that pleased and comforted her, she gave her creativity a stir, and improvised.

"Jesus loves me, this I know, coz some moron told me so."

"Now I lay me down to sleep ... I pray the Lamb don't fuck the sheep ..."

In order to thumb her nose at religion more even-handedly, she included a couple of the world's other major faiths.

"Allaaahuuu ... snackbar!"

"Om mani padme humble pie."

Hmm. She had to admit, they were all kinda lame. She should practice more.

Her pseudo-religious impulse exhausted, she subsided, trusting that she had covered all relevant bases.

Whether she had or not, she felt significantly better.

The hoped-for inspiration regarding her current situation, however, remained absent.

Undeterred, she extracted her pack from the snowmobile and set off through the snow on foot.

An hour later, her elevated mood was no longer in evidence.

Darkness had descended, bringing with it an awesome frigidity that bit like a school of piranha.

Despite her hooded jacket and gloves, she was inadequately clothed for such conditions, and was soon shivering woefully.

As a navigational aid, her small flashlight was proving next to useless. Still, at least it illuminated her way a little.

On she trudged through the snow, though with little notion where her steps might lead.

In an attempt to keep up her spirits, she mentally ran through some of her extensive vocabulary of obscenities, always a rewarding pastime.

By the time she abandoned this activity, her shivers had become shudders, the sign of a desperate body hitting survival mode.

Her obstinacy still served her well, though, coagulating into a mass of irrational defiance. If her tryst with Death was to take place here and now, she was determined to greet him with a merry curse on her lips.

As if on cue, the darkness to her right spoke in a deep voice.

"Evening, ma'am," it said.

Sheer surprise momentarily disrupted her control over her body. Her legs gave way and she sat down heavily. From this position, she managed to turn her quaking head toward the sound. Some paces away, a light hovered, shedding a white radiance that pooled on the snow.

She tried to speak, but her teeth would not co-operate, chattering wildly, chopping every word into incomprehensible fragments.

The light drifted closer, until it illuminated her feet.

Celestial? she wondered. Not infernal, at any rate. Wrong colour.

Though unable to properly see the bearer of the light, she sensed that she was in the presence of an unusually lofty creature. Her imagination flicked from one improbable image to another: Death himself, perhaps? Alternatively, a yeti?

At this point, she scarcely cared which. If the first, she already had her curse prepared. If the second, well and good: she was quite willing to be carried off to its lair for some abominable interspecies snuggling, if that's what it had in mind. Anything for a little warmth.

Her thoughts being somewhat befuddled by cold, it did not occur to her that neither Death, nor indeed yetis, are reputed to carry any source of illumination.

The light descended to the snow, then something huge and soft wrapped itself around her, pack and all.

"Pardon the familiarity, ma'am," the creature said, "but we've really got to get you indoors."

A response occurred to her, but remained unspoken: Into thy paws I commend my bod. For what I am about to receive, may the Lord make me truly thankful.

Then, hey-hup!, the creature laid hold of her and slung her over its shoulder, turning the world upside down. With her nose nuzzling the beast's broad back and her torso and arms hanging as limp as a skivvy on a clothesline, the world made even less sense than it had before.

Deprived of any usable visual input, the woman's mind took refuge in blessed absurdity.

Close of business, she thought. Time, please, ladies and gentlemen.

A sudden profound drowsiness saturated her bones.

One final thought arose: Time for a nap, methinks.

Seconds later, she was asleep.

An unknown time she drifted upon the measureless seas of dream, witnessing an assortment of absurd and irrelevant visions, before the lapping waters gradually morphed into something bearing a passing resemblance to solid ground.

Judging from her physical sensations, she concluded that she was reclining on a surface that had some resilience to it; a giant mushroom, perhaps.

Her left side was bathed in a delicious warmth. The right felt a little deprived, though not excessively uncomfortable.

Turn me around, she thought. I'm done on this side.

Sounds impinged upon her hearing: a secretive whispering, occasionally accompanied by a party popper going off. She was puzzled for a moment, until she understood that she was listening to the hissing and crackling of a fire.

Realising that the gears of her mind were not fully engaged, she determined to rouse herself to full wakefulness. No more dreaming for now. Time for a little reconnaissance.

For this, one required eyes. Heavy though they were, she managed to hoist the lids of hers far enough to take in a usable amount of light.

Above her, a slanting timber ceiling with a long skylight, currently dark. Still nighttime, then.

She rotated her eyes downward. There was herself, swathed in at least one vast blanket, atop not a mushroom, but a broad sleeping pad.

Rolling her head leftward revealed a wood heater housing a lively yellow blaze; rightward, her boots, placed neatly together beside her backpack.

Beyond these welcome items, she saw an enclosed space, identifiable as the unpartitioned interior of a wooden cabin, sparsely furnished, neat and tidy, though with no attention paid to any touch of decorative beauty.

Footsteps approached from the unseen portion of the cabin behind her recumbent form, sharply focussing her attention. A figure of human form hove into sight to her right.

Her rescuer, she felt bound to assume.

Neither Death nor a yeti, then.

The woman's pulse quickened as she identified the figure as the goal of her journey.

He was as foretold. A tall man, but young, perhaps five years her junior. His hands seemed a trifle overlarge in comparison with the rest of him: still a little filling out to be accomplished, it seemed.

The thought urged itself upon her that he was rather a comely fellow; attractive, even.

Stick to what's pertinent! she scolded herself.

In those large hands, he bore an object of immediate interest to her: a large pot of something steamy. From it protruded a hooked handle, presumably that of a ladle, leaning against the brim.

The man glanced toward her, nodded in acknowledgement of her regard, then looked away again.

His expression seemed preoccupied, she thought. Inward. Even standoffish.

Something on his conscience, perhaps.

"Evening, ma'am," he said. "Uh ... again."

She nodded slowly, but made no verbal response. Nor did he await one, instead crouching and setting the pot on the floor near her feet, then disappearing whence he had come.

A moment later, he returned, bearing a brace of bowls and spoons.

As before, he glanced at her, then away. Definitely averse to eye contact, she thought.

"Might be an idea to get some hot food into you," he said. "Need help sitting up?"

From the tone of his voice, she inferred that he would prefer she get up by herself. This suited her, so she shook her head, and thought he looked a little relieved.

"Got hot stew here," he said. "You can serve yourself as you like. You may want to choose the vegetables instead of the meat. Easier to digest. Probably better not to eat too quickly, too."

The woman was about to speak in response, but her stomach commented first, emitting a muffled but clearly audible grumble of discontent.

For just an instant, the barest hint of amusement ameliorated the man's sombre demeanour, then fled away.

The young woman pushed the blanket to one side and and slowly sat up.

She shifted to sit on the end of the sleeping pad, pulled her legs into a cross and, with a nod of acknowledgement to her benefactor, cast a cautious glance into the pot. A little mushy-looking, she thought. Not bad colours, though.

Her host lowered his sizable frame to the floor so that the pot stood between them.

She ladled a measure of stew into her bowl, taking care to include an unfairly large share of meat.

Motionless and silent, apparently more interested in his folded hands than in her, her benefactor waited for her to serve herself, then filled his own bowl.

Her rescuer's diffidence did not extend to eating: he tucked into his food with unconscious gusto. Surreptitiously, she watched him eat for a few moments, then cautiously took to her own serving.

She started with the broth, drinking slowly spoon by spoon, letting it complete from within the warming work of the fire. Afterward, she scooped up the vegetables, nigh soft enough to swallow without chewing. A standard male culinary effort, she thought. Not too abysmal, though. Hot. Nourishing. Efficacious.

He ate far more rapidly than she, downing two bowls of stew before she had dealt with one. Soon enough, though, her labours brought the bottom of the bowl to light once more, apart from the numerous chunks of meat, which she then tackled with the will of a wolf. Always save the best for last.

She set down the vessel, suppressed a sigh of contentment, and took stock of herself.

Hypothermia dispelled: check.

Hunger sated: check.

Energy levels: not optimal, but sufficient for the moment.

Purpose reasserting itself: check.

Satisfied, she turned her attention upon her saviour.

"So ... what brought you out of seclusion, just in time to succour the damsel?" she asked, having decided to skip the customary formalities.

If the man found her manner abrupt, he gave no indication of it.

He shrugged.

"Saw your flashlight," he explained briefly.

She looked around.

"From in here?"

"From outside."

Counting the stars? she wondered. Looking out for yetis?

He made no comment on the fact that she had not identified herself. Nor did he seem inclined to do so himself.

Conversation flagged then. Silence ascended the throne, reigned uneasefully for a few moments.

Then, for no reason she could discern, the man gave a decisive nod.

Without looking at her, he rose to his feet, crossed the room, took up a small backpack and began moving here and there about the cabin, picking up various items and stuffing them into it.

Strange time to go for a stroll, she thought. And anyway, where was there to stroll to?

His preparations complete, the man approached her once more, still avoiding any lengthy eye contact.

"The fire should last for a couple of hours," he said. "There's extra wood when it gets too low. If you need anything else, have a poke around. Make yourself at home. Use what you want. Bathroom's through that door. Camping bed's over there, if you prefer sleeping off the floor.

His piece said, her host lifted his greatcoat from a nearby hook, shouldered his way into it.

"Making tracks?" she queried.

He nodded.

"Is this you being a gentleman," she asked, "or are you that averse to company?"

He hesitated, then answered obliquely.

"There's a hut with a wood heater not far away," he said. "I'm going there for the night. In the morning, we'll see about getting mountain rescue up here, to extract you."

"Like a bothersome tooth?" she asked.

He stared at her in silence for a moment, then shrugged again.

"No bother," he said.

He turned toward the door.

She spoke from behind him: "Stay a while."

He paused, but did not turn.

"Better I leave," he said.

"I insist," she responded.

The sudden metal in her tone did not escape him. Mystified, he turned slowly to regard her.

His gaze fixed on her right hand. Gripped therein was a silvery object, undoubtedly a gun. It was aimed steadily at his torso.

He raised his eyes to hers. His judgement had been correct: there was steel there. She wasn't kidding around.

"I'd much prefer you remain, Mister Matthew Quinn," she said.

Matthew stared at her for a long, tense moment.

He wondered how she knew his name, but did not ask.

Eventually, unable to make sense of the situation, he shrugged uncomfortably.

"Have a seat," she invited.

He hesitated, then complied, laying down his pack, dropping his coat to the floor and sitting down on it.

He showed no fear, only puzzlement.

"I don't know what this is about," he said slowly, "but I strongly suggest you let me leave, for your own ... uh ... welfare."

She smiled without humour.

"As threats go, that's kinda milquetoast," she said.

Not a threat, he thought, but said nothing.

"What is it you want?" he asked.

Her response was cryptic.

"Ever seen me before?" she asked. "Look at my face. Look carefully."

Matthew hesitated, then did as instructed.

The moment when his eyes widened in recognition did not escape her.

"Oh, Christ," he murmured.

She nodded.

"Coming back to you, is it, Mister Quinn?"

"She said she had a twin," he said, half to himself.