He felt more than saw that the rope around his waist was slack, not taut. That meant that — if Alexis were not still falling — then they were not too far apart, and he had also found, for now at least, a stable place to stand, or something firm to hang on to. He shouted again, but there was no answer.
He reached around with his feet. There was not much in the way of footholds. He was desperate to get at least some of the weight off his arms — and off the tree root. Some roots can be very sturdy, and will put up with a lot of weight. He remembered, quite at random, a root in his father’s garden which they had tried to dig out. It resisted pulling, hacking with a spade, even chopping with an axe. There had been no way to get a saw to it, and they had even talked about using explosives. The funny thing was that it did not seem to belong to any particular tree.
He tried to focus his mind.
His scrabbling feet still found no foothold, but he somehow managed to get them between his body and the rock, and so began to walk upwards. This was dangerous, because it meant more stress on the tree root—
There was a lurch, and he rocked back a nine inches. The root was definitely loose now. He felt it indefinably easing towards him — easing—
Suddenly he was falling again. He was toppling head first. This would be the end of him, surely.
In an instant, he was buried eight foot deep in chilling snow. This was good — a relief — because it had given him the softest of soft landings. But unless he could right himself quickly he would be suffocated, as those caught in avalanches so often are. Even if he could right himself and clamber up onto the surface, the cold which now pressed against every limb and prodded and probed like reaching tentacles was sapping his strength.
He struck out, like a swimmer, flailing this way and that. The snow closed in above him, but below it shifted. Then, once again, he was falling. He must have been on some unsupported snow bridge, like a flying buttress at a cathedral.
He landed on something which was hard (though some snow had cushioned his fall). It was now absolutely dark. Feeling his way around, he reckoned that his was a cave, part rock, part packed snow. Feeling in his backpack, he found a tiny folder of matches. Fingers trembling, ready to snuff it out in an instant if need be, he lit the first match and looked around.
It was a cave. By some chance, he had fallen through a large hole in the roof, near the front, which had been packed with snow. Some of the snow now lay on the cave floor, but other snow had moved to fill its space, and there was no sign of sky above. The rope, which was still round his waist, went up into the ceiling as if it were hanging from a trapdoor.
The cave was a decentish enough size. The walls were twelve feet apart, and really quite regular, arching smoothly upwards. He imagined that from the outside, it might look somewhat as mouse-holes are supposed to look, though mouse-holes never do look like that, and neither do caves. As the match went out, he realised that his mind was wandering again. He must stick to the task at hand.
The first thing to do was to try to rescue Alexis, or at least to make contact with him. Together they stood a chance, alone they did not.
Gently, he pulled on the rope. It came quite easily, so he pulled — slowly — hand over hand. Ten feet of rope went by. This was either good, since it meant that Alexis was not far away, or terribly, terribly bad. He bit his tongue as he pulled further, wondering if what he would find at the other end of that rope was not Alexis, but a frayed end, cut either by a knife, which is what a climber must do when he falls irretrievably far and must save his fellow-climber’s life by sacrificing his own, or by some sharp rock of the mountain.
So he pulled, and twenty feet of rope went by. This meant that every anchor they had hammered with such care into the cliff-face had come away as if it were no more than a pin in butter. Thirty feet of rope went by, and now he was beginning to believe that he was pulling only on loose rope. He bit his lip.
Then — the rope went taut. He tugged again, though gently, in case it were merely caught on something.
The rope tugged back.
He could have danced or jumped for joy. He pulled on the rope three times, which was their signal for “I am safe”. The rope tugged back twice. After “I am safe”, two pulls meant “I am alright, but not in a safe place.” Gordon tugged back seven times, carefully counting under his breath. Seven times meant “come to me”. One tug in reply meant “yes”.
Gordon lit a second match and hastily looked around for anything he could fix the rope to. There were some scattered rocks, though these were too light to counterbalance the weight of a man. He could brace himself on the side of the cave — that would be the best thing. He tugged seven times again, and then wrapped a couple of coils of loose rope around himself. He felt the rope tighten as Alexis took up the slack. It stayed tight — but did not pull — for a long time. Five hundred slow breaths, by Gordon’s reckoning. He wondered what had gone wrong.
Then, a flurry of snow falling onto him, and Alexis came climbing down through the cave roof, something dazzling bright bouncing this way and that from his pack.
“Good to see you,” he said, as he dropped the last two feet onto the cave floor.
“Good to see you too,” said Gordon. “Are you alright?”
“Desperately, desperately cold. Can we light a fire here?”
Neither Gordon nor Alexis knew it, but they had come round the side of the mountain, and were now on the perilous south face, the sheerest, steepest part, which had never been scaled, not even in summer. If they could have looked out, they would have been looking at the long promontory, which ended in cliffs and a steep path several miles towards the village.
On the other side of the mountain, Michael had run until his legs would carry him no further. There was no moon, but the Milky Way stretched out in all its glory past over the mountain from north to south. In the snow, the starlight gave light enough to see by, but, aside from more mountain, more stars, and more snow, there was nothing to see.
He was ready to sink down on his knees, and return to the drowsy warm slumber he had almost succumbed to earlier, when he saw something that surprised him. Over the next ridge, only visible because of the way it darkened the stars behind it from moment to moment, was a column of black smoke. Had he found his way back to the castle? Unlikely, since the stove would long since have gone out. Was it a human habitation, perhaps a shepherd’s cottage high on the mountainside? Or robbers? Or gypsies? Whoever it was, there was fire and warmth.
He slogged on through the snow.
From the ridge he saw — what? Shadows, but no fire. What made smoke but no fire? Whatever it was, it would surely be warm. Or was this the scene of an earlier camp? Was it robbers, and, seeing him coming, they had hastily put out the flames, and were now waiting for him in the dark.
He wished he had a sword. But, sword or no sword, he needed the warmth. He set off down the slope.
The shadows focussed themselves before he reached it. Not a camp, not a cottage, but the Mechcart, its overnight stove merrily burning its coal as it recharged the electricalish cells.
“Derek, Derek,” he called, not wishing to be a cause of alarm and misunderstanding. There was no reply. He called again. Still no reply. Fearing the worst, he ran forwards. The Mechcart was a mess of shadows. It was hard to tell — he felt his way around it. The carapace was up, but, inside, there was no sign of Derek. What had happened? Had he, too, followed the elusive voices? Had he been attacked, and dragged off kidnapped? Or had he decided to go part of the way up the mountain with Gordon and Alexis?
He stared hard at the ground for footprints, but could make nothing of anything. Now desperately tired, he climbed under the carapace. The floor below where the cells charged was deliciously warm. Reaching, he found from somewhere a travel blanket or rug, and, wrapping it around him, he lay down in the footwells beneath the seats, and went to sleep.
Derek, of course, had long since reached the Robbers’ lair. Black Hand Nigel was in high spirits. He praised Derek for the way he had tricked Gordon and Alexis, and he was especially pleased because, at the village, Bart had managed finally to get to the Heliographoscope. They had been merrily signalling each other until the light went, and there was much news to tell.
All of the village was now in the grip of Black Hand Gang gossip. They were absolutely certain that Sedan, who had attacked innocent Mr Lomax in the street with a tale so far-fetched that it could only have come from a drunk or a lunatic, was behind bars, in the tiny makeshift jail at the constable’s house. As a result, they had relaxed the guard on the old mill, and the youth who was supposed to be watching it had nipped round the back for a jar of beer and some time with one of the local girls. Professor Fiedel, who had come so close to wrecking all their plans, was not to be found, though Lomax had said that he would probably be alright. A search of Fiedel’s house had revealed nothing. They had sent a message out to the doctor, who was at Chipping Norton several miles away, but the messenger had not yet returned.
Nigel and Derek spent much of the night doing some serious drinking, and slept long into the morning. You know the expression ‘as thick as thieves’? Derek and Nigel were as thick with each other as only thieves can be, and called for more beer, and bacon, and sausage, and black pudding, and fried potato, and fried egg, and fried bread, and fried tomato, and a peculiar kind of pancake that was popular among the Black Hand Gang the moment they woke up.
After that, they got to their plans.
Derek would spend New Year with the robbers. A string of events had been planned for that night, though most of them, to those who were not robbers, would have seemed to be a desperately similar series of drunken singing, drunken gambling, drunken fighting, and, to round it off, drunken drinking. He would then return to the Mechcart in time to collect Alexis and Gordon, and take them as agreed back to the Krak de Montagne. That night, Sunday night, the robbers, all 99 of them (there were 99 official robbers in the Black Hand Gang, though many more in the lair who were camp followers, servants, or young cutpurses desperate to be accepted into the gang when a member fell away) would be at the Krak. Those who had been caught by the Blue Shock, as they now called it, were rather leery of any repeat of the experience — they had had headaches ever since, and one of them swore that he had lost his ability to hit an apple with a knife at ten yards, though others struggled to remember that he had previously performed that particular feat. To overcome this, they would on the Sunday morning visit the hut and remove the nails from the wooden roof, using string to keep the planks temporarily in place. As night fell, one robber would come with a knife on a pole and cut the string, while others, with other poles, would push the planks aside. When this was done, another group would swing down on ropes and, jumping into the roof-less hut, would instantly take Gordon, Alexis and Michael captive. This would be assisted by Derek telling them to stay in the hut while he single handedly dealt with the robbers, as before.
Once they were sure that they had all the papers, maps, charts and notes, as Lomax had indicated, they would truss up their three victims, take them to a good, big cliff not far from the castle and, removing their bonds since evidence is something no robber holds dear, push them off the edge. Then, since ‘doing the job properly’ was one of Black Hand Nigel’s mottos, and the main reason why had risen to be chief of the gang, they would roll big stones down on top of them, and shovel on snow.
Derek would then walk mournfully back to the village — there was some discussion about that, as Derek wanted to drive the Mechcart, but Nigel wanted to take it back to the lair — and tell the news that Michael, Gordon and Alexis had each failed to return from the climb, and, with so much time gone, must now be considered lost. He would suggest a search party, and if such a party were forthcoming, would allow them after some detours (for one must never make these things too easy) to find their bodies at the bottom of the cliff. To counter Derek’s concerns about the Mechcart, Nigel had promised that they would also throw a quantity of old bits of metal and some barrels over the cliff edge, to give the impression that the cart had been foolishly and impetuously driven that way.
It was long past lunchtime — even the very late lunchtime which follows a long-sleep and a big breakfast — by the time they had finally hammered out their plan. Nigel despatched a junior Black Hander to take the message up to their Heliographoscoper, who would send it, via the mirror on the mountainside, to Bart who had agreed to be there at two o’clock to receive it.
Down in the village, the previous day, Brian had had an unusual afternoon. It was his turn to watch the Helgoscope (as it was now officially known — the old professor had used some other name, but it had been rather hard to get your tongue round, and had swiftly fallen into disuse), not that there was very much point to that: the spy, Sedan, was in custody, and wouldn’t be sending any more messages, not then, and not ever. An angry crowd had gathered outside the constable’s house, armed with mattocks and scythes and other instruments of agricultural anger. The constable had seen them off: he had no liking for Frenchmen, nor for spies neither, as he explained, but the law was the law, and the law had to be honoured and obeyed. As lynch-mobs go, the villagers had been fairly half-hearted, and dispersed to gossip and chat.
Brian, though, was still packed off to the Helgoscope. Fortunately the weather had taken a turn for the warmer. All traces of snow, except for the last piles in drifts and shadows, had gone, and, with his coat wrapped around him and a couple of bottles of beer which he had managed to acquire from the still closed but largely unguarded inn, he felt that he could satisfactorily settle down with a copy of the Winchester Gazette to read the Christmas thriller, which promised thrills, spills, and, as a bonus, excitement.
He had not been there long, though, when there was a pattering of feet, and the sound of girls, giggling.
“Is there anyone up there?”, called a voice which was like Claudine’s voice. Brian was very confused about Claudine. They had had a sort of arrangement — nothing public or official, but an understanding that they were in some sense or other together. But Claudine seemed to have cooled on him recently. Brian might have blamed the party which had arrived by Mechcart. Claudine had mentioned something about one of them. But he had not actually paid that much attention. Women, as a rule, were a mystery to him, except for his little sister who liked flowers and played with dolls.
“Just me, Brian,” he said.
“Oh, Brian!”, she replied, coming up the staircase. “I’m so worried, and I’ve been so confused.” She then poured out a long story about how worried she was about the men out on the mountain, and how confused she had been about her feelings recently. She wanted a real man, a hero, but she also wanted to be with someone who was tender and kind, and who knew the real her. Alexis — the man on the mountain, with the cart-thingy — was a hero. But he did not really know her. She wanted someone who could give her lovely gifts (she made a point of this several times), but also someone she had grown up with, a local man who knew the village, and knew her, and was comfortable with her family (Alexis had not met her mother — what would he think of her?), and would one day own his own farm, or perhaps have a worthwhile trade such as a blacksmith (Brian had not really followed everything, but he was minded to remind her that he himself was going to be a blacksmith), and who wouldn’t be going off into the wild on mad adventures. She thought perhaps if only Alexis really understood just how frightened she was by his adventures that he would settle down and be a good husband, but, if not, she would rather marry someone — and this was terribly difficult to make such a choice — she would rather marry someone dependable than someone adventurous. But it was important that such a person proved his love, for example with a New Year’s gift, of the kind it was customary for lovers to give in Warwickshire at that time.
Brian, to be entirely honest, had not listened to a great deal of the actual content of what she was saying. He was conscious first of all that she was talking to him and, despite the other giggles below which suggested she had friends with her, was choosing to do so alone. He was also aware that, every so often, she took his hand in hers, though she then dropped it again, which was something she had not done for a while. Then he realised that she was sitting beside him, rather than in front of him.
Finally, she led him downstairs, out of the old mill, to a small shack off to the side, which was altogether cleaner, warmer, and more private.
It was of course then that Bart, who had been waiting quite concealed a little way off, went into the old mill. He did not need to see people to know exactly how many had gone in, and how many had come out again, and where they went to: the characteristic sounds of each were enough to paint him the clearest picture, even of places the eye could not have seen, since sound travels through walls and around corners.
It was quite dark by the time Brian emerged from the shack. He was not quite sure that he had won Claudine back, he was more on a sort of probation. But it was vitally important that he find a gift for her the next morning which would suitably prove his love, and his worth, at the New Year’s Dance in the village hall.
That was yesterday, and now it was today. Brian got up early, in a flurry, to seek advice from the village shop-keepers. The shop-keepers did not open until nine-thirty, since it was the middle of winter and deliveries were in any case delayed, so Brian paced around, peering through the windows of the ironmonger, and the dressmaker, and the apothecary, and the man who sold pottery, and the fancy goods store, and the bookshop which was also the newsagent.
Of the thing he saw in the windows, all were fraught with difficulties. Claudine liked dresses, but Brian did not know what size she was (it did not occur to him that the dressmaker might know exactly what size she was, and, indeed, have an exact knowledge of everything she had bought or worn since her twelfth birthday), and choosing the wrong size would be disastrous. The apothecary sold a range of soaps and beauty products, but buying soaps might suggest that he thought Claudine needed to wash more often, and buying beauty products was like saying to her that she was ugly. A flower-pot might be a nice thing to buy, but he rather felt that, if you gave a flower-pot, there ought to be a flower in it. But where did you find a flower for a pot in the middle of winter? Fancy goods seemed a promising line, but when he looked in the window, he did not really fancy any of the goods on offer, which included dog-collars and horse-brasses and shoe-horns. If he were buying something for himself, he might have chosen a book. Brian was a voracious reader. He had read all of the tales of the Black Hand Gang (in which it was explained why they were called the Black Hand Gang in the first place. Apparently they had originally favoured the ‘Red Hand Gang’, but someone had pointed out to them that being caught Red-Handed was not something that any robber would gladly be), and also a series of fantastical writings which imagine what England would have been like if there were no Mountain. It was all very amusing. But he had never seen Claudine read a book, and he had never actually seen her in the bookshop, and he recalled now that she had several times chided him for spending his time with his nose in a book when he could be paying attention to her. Perhaps that was where he had gone wrong! He resolved that, whatever it was, the gift would not be a book.
As he paced to and fro, he noticed someone stumbling along from the end of the village. The man — it was a man — seemed quite ill. He was grabbing hold of the fenceposts and the gateposts, not as one drunk, but as one who is short of breath, and can barely walk at all.
It was Professor Fiedel.
Now, Brian had the spare key to the inn, which was how he had managed to acquire the bottles of beer the previous day. He did some odd bits of repairs for Seline from time to time, and had not given it back to her.
Brian was very fond of Fiedel, who had leant him many a book over many years, though comparatively few of them were thrillers or mysteries. So he ran to him, and realising that all was very much not well, he scooped him up, put him over his shoulder, and carried him off to the inn.
It was chilly inside: the fires had not been lit. Brian set him down in an armchair, and hastily poured him a shot of brandy. He thought about pouring one for himself, but decided that would be dishonest, brandy falling into quite a different category from beer bottles. Fiedel spluttered and revived somewhat at the brandy, which gave Brian the confidence to leave him be for a few minutes while he hastily kindled the fire. Once the flames had caught, he dragged Fiedel’s chair across the floor, making a groove in the polished floorboards, and then ran out into the street to look for help.
A very few minutes later, the tap-room of the Inn was as full as it would have been if it had actually been open. Some — like the constable and Geoffrey — had come because Brian had asked them. Some had followed the constable, because everyone knew dark doings were afoot and, as long as the constable were there to keep everyone safe, it was always better to find out first-hand than to hear it from a neighbour. Some had come in simply because they saw that a fire was burning, found the door to be open, and assumed that Seline was back and would shortly pour them a pint of something warm against the winter’s cold.
Most men, in Fiedel’s situation, would have hung on to their enfeebled state for as long as possible in order to get maximum attention, and possibly a couple more free brandies. But Fiedel was, in every way, not most men.
As soon as he was sufficiently revived, he sat up, and started giving incomprehensible instructions and a series of explanations which explained nothing, and only led to further questions.
First, that they ride to Temple Grafton and fetch the optician, with his lens grinder. When asked if he felt his eyesight was poor, he told them it had never been better.
Second, he insisted that they redouble the guard on the Heliographoscope, since their lives were in peril.
Third, when they reassured him that their lives were not in peril, because Sedan the spy had been arrested, he insisted that they release Sedan at once, and bring him straight there.
Fourth, when they told him that they could not release Sedan, because he stood of the serious charge of affray, having attacked Lomax in the street, Fiedel insisted that they absolutely release Sedan, and arrest Lomax instead.
Fifth, he told them that they must send a messenger to the mountain post-haste, because Derek, Michael, Gordon and Alexis were in mortal peril, and must be forewarned and, preferably, forearmed.
Finally, he told them to go to the end of the village and bring back the doctor. When they told him that the doctor was away, but had been sent for, he told them not to be ridiculous: the doctor had looked after him and, since he had walked out of the doctor’s house and through the woods when the doctor was not looking, the doctor must now be very worried and deserved some form of explanation. This made no sense whatsoever, since the doctor lived in quite a different part of the village, in a little house with no garden with a front door that opened straight onto the street, as far away from any trees as it was reasonably possible to be.
Nobody noticed that Lomax had been in the tap-room while all this was happening, and nobody noticed that he slipped out once Fiedel had mentioned the other doctor. Most of the people in there had their attention fixed on Fiedel, and the rest were looking around for Seline, or beginning to experiment with how you got the pump for the beer started so that they could pour themselves a drink. Like Brian, they refrained from opening the bottles of spirits on the shelf behind the bar.
Michael awoke from a deep slumber. His limbs were wonderfully relaxed, and his ankle was quite better. He found that he was curled up still under a blanket under the carapace. The floor held the barest trace of warmth, and there was a coolish, but not cold, breeze coming under the flaps. He looked out. The sky had papered over again. It was surely mid-morning, or late morning, judging by the portion of sky which was slightly brighter than the rest.
“Morning Michael,” said a woman’s voice, which he had absolutely not expected to hear.
“I’ve made you some breakfast,” it said. Michael rubbed his eyes. Peering in through the front of the carapace was Seline, long black hair gently lifting in the breeze. For a moment he thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“Thought I’d find you here,” she said chattily, as if she had run into him in the baker’s shop.
“What are you doing here?”, he asked.
“Oh, we’ve had some trouble with Angharad. Very wild she is at the moment. I hope she hasn’t caused you too much difficulties. Huw sent me a message, see. He caught up with her, but then she ran off again. Found her this morning, though, and she said you might be here.”
“Yes, silly, you’ve been chasing around after her for the last few days.”
“No, no, that’s not right. I’ve been following the Spirit of the Mountain.”
“Spirit of the Mountain? Angharad? Don’t talk daft. She’s no more the Spirit of the Mountain than I am. She’s just a wilful girl who knows these slopes far too well and likes to play tricks on travellers.”
Michael climbed out of the Mechcart.
“Saw in a good light, did you? In broad daylight?”
“Well, no, it was dark…”
“Well, there you are. Your boys are in a spot of bother as well, though, from what I hear. There’s a reason no climber has ever climbed the mountain in the middle of winter: it’s just plain stupid.”
She handed him a hunk of bread with some ham in it.
“Come on, we’ve got a distance to go.”
On the south face, Gordon and Alexis had managed to fix up their tent inside the cave, and, with Gordon’s coat and Alexis’s specially sewn blanket roll, they had huddled up close for the night. They too had slept far into the morning, and were now munching through chocolate and raisins. Alexis had the idea of using the rope, which he had left sandwiched between two rocks somewhere up above, to grout out the snow round the cave hole, which they could then use as a chimney for a fire, but all they managed to do was to shake more snow down into the cave. Alexis then tried to climb the rope again, but the snow further up had become compacted, and he could not shift it.
“This isn’t much good,” he said, shining his electricalish light around the recesses of the cave. There was a dim light around them of daylight through thick ice, but not really enough to see by. His sweep revealed smooth rock sides. The front of the cave was thickly compacted snow, worse than the roof. They tried digging at it, but it was heavy and hard. The back was an enormous wall of ice, from the floor to the roof. It was quite smooth and, even shining the light into it, they could not tell whether it was ice on rock, or ice that might lead elsewhere.
“You know, old chap,” said Alexis, “this is just right to be the front of one of those mining tunnels the Romans were supposed to have dug, and no-one ever found since.”
“Well, if it remains iced up like this, you could see why no-one would ever find it. That’s definitely the front, where the snow is, facing onto the mountain. Do you reckon if we could get through this ice we might find our way into the old mine workings?”
“We just might do that.”
“I’m not sure how much of an improvement that would be, though I dare say we’d be able to light a fire. How long is that light thing of yours good for? I don’t fancy getting lost in a maze of tunnels without so much as a light.”
“A few hours, perhaps.”
Alexis picked up a fist-sized rock and hurled it against the ice. It made a booming sound as it flew off, but made little impression. Gordon picked up a bigger rock and, with both hands, swung it hard right into the centre of the wall. He got a much heavier thud for his pains, but when he looked for cracks appearing he saw nothing.
“We’re just scratching the surface. Come on, we can do this without your light. Let’s both heave on this big rock and see if we can’t make something shift.”
They worked at if for what seemed hours. The chill in the cave grew worse, and the light steadily faded. No cracks appeared in the ice.
Eventually they had to rest.
“It’s bloody well not fair,” said Alexis, banging his fist on his pack. “It’s New Year’s tonight, and we’ll never set off those fireworks. The whole thing’s ruined.”
“Ach, come on Alexis. Who cares about the fireworks? We’ll get out of this somehow, and we’ll get all the measurements we need”, said Gordon. But secretly, he did not feel there was much chance of them getting out at all, and was wondering if there was any way they could collect the gunpowder from the fireworks and make some kind of explosive to blast their way out.
Just at that moment, there was a boom from behind them, in the ice-wall. For a couple of seconds nothing, and then another boom. Then, every few seconds for about half an hour after that another boom.
“What’s happening?”, said Alexis, “are those explosions in the tunnels? Is there mine gas? Have we triggered something?”
Gordon chewed his tongue as he considered.
“If the stories are correct, they mined silver here, not coal. And this is not the kind of mountain where you would find coal, so I doubt there would be methane.”
“Then what is it?”
“I have no idea.”
The slow boom — boom — boom continued long after they were heartily sick of it. But just as it had become a sound they were simply used to, there was another sound from behind them. Not a boom — boom, but the sharp, spiteful sound of ice cracking.
Jumping up, they seized their rock and smashed it against the ice wall. The cracking increased. Sharp fragments of ice flew off and stung them. In a minute, there was an enormous fissure, stretching from floor to ceiling and from left to right. If they had stopped to listen, they would have noticed that the booming had now ceased. But they did not stop, and instead pounded on with manic fury.
After two minutes, the ice gave way, revealing a tunnel ahead of them, littered with smashed and broken ice nodules. Leaving their packs and the tent behind them, they rushed forwards.
There was a splintering, shocking sound, as a huge quantity of ice from above crashed down on their heads, followed by a drenching torrent of freezing water. Somehow they struggled to their feet, wet through, shivering, half blinded. Dazed by it all they stumbled on, stopping only when Alexis’s light picked out a yawning chasm beneath them. They halted, grasping at each other to stop themselves from falling. Below, stretched out as far as the eye could see, going back deep into the mountain, was a black, subterranean lake. It was a twenty foot drop, and no knowing what rocks lay under the surface.
“That was a narrow escape,” said Gordon, through chattering teeth. Alexis was shivering uncontrollably.
Then, without any warning or indication whatsoever, a voice behind them said:
“In you go then.”
They were picked or pushed or propelled or something off the precarious ledge, and sent tumbling straight down the drop.
There was an almighty splash as they hit the water, and Alexis found himself sinking, sinking deep into wet darkness.
Chapter eight appears on New Year’s Day.