Creative

Chapter Seven — New Year’s Eve

Chapter Seven — New Year’s Eve

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin TurnerThe wind whipped round Gordon’s face. It bit at the space on his wrists between his sleeves and his gloves. His arms ached. His heart pounded.

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.

Thud!

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.

He demanded:

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.”

“Angharad?”

“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.

Chapter Six — Thursday

Chapter Six — Thursday

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin TurnerThe message that Seline sent to Huw was short and simple: “I am coming.”

As soon as she was able, she shooed the last customers out of the tap-room, and then did a sweep of the parlours and the salon. “Go and drink at home for once,” she told them, and handed bottles to favoured regulars who protested. “Go on, have this one on me. You look like you could use the exercise,” she chided, “I’m shutting up early tonight. Had some bad news, I have, and I must be attending to it.”

She planned to leave at first light, but before she went to bed, she wanted to see Professor Fiedel and tell him everything she knew. She might just as well have gone left outside the front door as right, in which case she would have gone to the constable’s house. But she had little respect for the constable, and like many inn-keepers, did not especially wish to be known as someone too close to the police. So she went right, avoiding the patches of refrozen snow, and wrapping her shawl tightly round her shoulders against the cold.

Fiedel’s light was on, but there was no answer when she rang the bell. “Perhaps he’s disconnected it,” she said to herself. It was not unusual for Fiedel to be undertaking peculiar experiments which involved removing parts from the door bell, or other household items. Sometimes it was because he did not wish to be disturbed, other times because he wanted the part for something, and it was easier to get it that way than to find it in his workshop.

She banged on the door, and when this produced no result, she banged on the window. Finally, since this also produced no result, she pushed the door hard, to see if it would open.

Open it did.

It was warm inside the house, though this didn’t mean anything: Fiedel kept his house heated even when he was not in it, in contradiction to all good sense and economy.

“Professor Fiedel,” she called, “Professor Fiedel! Professor Fiedel! I hope you don’t mind, but I couldn’t get an answer when I rang, or when I knocked!”

No answer. She was in the hallway. There was a door to the right, the front room, a door a little further along, through which she had never been, and, at the end, the door to the kitchen, which itself led through to the scullery, and thence to Fiedel’s workshop. Just before you got to the kitchen were the stairs to the first floor. She had never been to the first floor. It was not like Fiedel to be sleeping at this time — he slept very little, often working late into the night and then arising a few hours later with the answer to his problem already dancing inside his brain. If he was asleep, Seline told herself, she would not go up those stairs and look for him. Certainly not!

“Professor Fiedel,” she called again. If he was not asleep, and he was in the house — the light from the front room suggested he was, since he was religious about turning off the lights when not at home, quite contrary to his policy on heating — then he must surely be in the workshop at the back, since that was the only place where he would not be able to hear her.

“Professor Fiedel,” she continued to call as she made her way to the back. The kitchen light was on, gas merrily burning. By the brightness of the glowing mantle, it had been on for some time. She looked out of the kitchen window. There was no light from the workshop, and the kitchen door was bolted shut. Most strange. What to do?

She resolved to try the front room. There was a light on there, which suggested that Fiedel had been doing something which involved both it and the kitchen. “Think like a Professor,” she told herself. “What would a Professor do that means having the lights on in the kitchen and the front room, but where he still can’t here you when you knock on the front door?”

She racked her brains for a moment, but no inspiration came. The ways of professors were dark to her.

She pushed open the door to the front room. The heat was oppressive, as if someone had turned the stove up to warm it and forgotten to turn it down again. On the table was a tea-pot, and a tea-cup, from which someone had drunk, and in the seat by the fire was something that looked like a man, but his head lolling back, breathing in shuddering gasps — heavens, it was a man! It was Professor Fiedel.

“Professor Fiedel!”, she shrieked. She sprang across the room, narrowly avoiding upsetting the tea-things. Fiedel’s skin was quite cold, his eyes were closed, he was drawing breath fitfully. She felt his pulse — they’d taught her to do that years before — and it was erratic. Or perhaps she was checking it wrong. She put her ear to his chest, and his heart was definitely beating strangely. It sounded faint and far away.

What to do, what to do? She must get help.

She ran out into the street shouting “Help! Help!”, and ran straight into the black-cloaked, black-booted figure of Monsieur Sedan. He gave her a hard stare — perhaps he attributed his humiliation of the day before entirely to Seline, and perhaps he was right.

“How can I assist, Mademoiselle?”

“Oh help me! Help me! It’s Professor Fiedel. I think he’s dying!”

“But that is impossible. I saw Fiedel just a few minutes ago, perhaps half an hour. He was walking down the street with that man Lomax. They went together into the Professor’s house.”

Seline stared at him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she yelled. “Fiedel’s alone, and he’s dying. Now will you help me?”

“Of course.”

He followed her quickly inside the house. Fiedel half sat, half lay in the same condition. Sedan’s face quickly filled with concern.

“Yes, yes, you are right. We must hurry. We must get him to the doctor.”

“The doctor’s away until New Year’s.”

“No, no, not that doctor. We must take him to the old doctor who fought with the French in North Africa.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“No, you would not have seen him. He drinks no beer or wine, and seldom comes into the village. But you must help me carry him. Fiedel is a small man, but it is hard for one man in the snow.”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

Pushing the tea things out of the way, they managed to half carry, half drag Fiedel’s lifeless form into the hall. Seline wrapped her shawl around him, and pulled an old cloak from the coat rack to cover his legs. “He’ll freeze without it,” she said.

With Sedan taking most of the weight, they went back onto the High Street, turning left to the part of the village where the houses began to grow fewer.

“How much further is it?”, asked Seline, as they passed the very last house that she could ever remember seeing.

“It is — that is to say, we must take this path.”

He led her through a wicket gate into what appeared to be a compact coppice, almost a miniature forest. The trees stood very thick up to a tiny path that meandered among them.

“Is there really a house here?”

“Patience, patience.”

Just as she thought that Sedan was deceiving her, and had brought her and the dying Fiedel into the wilds for some terrible purpose, she saw the flicker of a light ahead of them. They were tramping on snow, now: no feet had disturbed this path, and the woods had kept the sun from unfreezing it in the short winter daylight. Then they were at the house, which sat, without garden or fence, right up against the trees.

Supporting Fiedel somehow, Sedan banged on the door until a white haired man, stooped with age, opened it.

“Maurice,” he said, “you must help me. Here is Professor Fiedel, and he is dying.”

They exchanged some words in French which Seline did not understand, then the man who was evidently called Maurice (Seline later learned that his real name was Dr Morris) let them inside.

“How long has he been like this?”, was his first question.

“No more than a half hour,” said Sedan, before Seline could speak. “I saw him myself walking and talking with that man Lomax. When we found him, Lomax was gone.”

“What, Señor Lomax who was the Spanish ambassador’s special equerry to Marakesh, until that incident with the dancer?”

“I did not know this,” said Sedan.

“Oh, it was famous in its day,” he continued to examine Fiedel while he talked, “Lomax was a very young man, far too young for the responsibility he carried. But he had dash, and swagger, and he was well connected in Spain. His job was to carry coded messages from Marakesh to Tangiers. But he came under the spell of a dancer, and, before he knew it, his papers were gone, and the dancer with them. He was sent back to Spain in disgrace.”

“And you know this, how? And how is it that you have never said anything?”

“I only saw him in the village last week for the first time. With my leg, you know, I don’t get out. But the reason I know about the dancer and the papers — well, of course, it was a matter of very much gossip in Marakesh. I still have his papers somewhere…”

“YOU have his papers?”

“I was the one who paid the dancer. It was all rather pointless really. There was nothing in the letters of any importance. If I had known that I would not have paid the dancer quite as much money. But it did for Lomax.”

“So Lomax is still working for Spain?”

“Oh, without a doubt. Once a spy, always a spy, don’t you know?”

“I am a cavalry officer. I know nothing of spying.”

“Evidently. Look, Sedan, and you, girl, whatever your name is. This man has been drugged. Atropine, or some such, I wouldn’t mind guessing. Without a proper work up by a toxicologist there’s no way of quite knowing, but he’s going to be asleep for — let me see — quite a few hours. You need to keep him warm, and you need to keep him under observation. You can put him in the spare bed here for now. No point moving him again. I can watch him — let me see —”

“I’ll watch him first,” said Seline. “I have to make a journey tomorrow, but I’ll watch him until then.”

“That’s not too sensible,” said Morris. “No-one can watch all night. It’s not humanly possible. I’ll take the first watch — you too can drowse in front of the fire. Heaven knows, I’ve fallen asleep myself doing that often enough. Sedan can watch from midnight. He’s had enough practice at that. And you, my dear, can start at four. When do you need to set off?”

“I need to be gone by eight, sir.”

“Good enough. Your friend Fiedel should be awake by then. If he isn’t, I’ll try to get a stimulant into him. Then we’ll see.”

When the villagers — those that liked to — came to the inn for breakfast the next morning, the door was locked, and there was a note, written in spidery but graceful black handwriting: “The inn is closed until New Year. Go and drink somewhere else.”

This prompted a deal of grumbling. Not only was there no breakfast, but it meant that the Spirit of the Mountain’s famous New Year’s Eve celebrations would not be going ahead.

Claudine was at the head of the grumblers.

“It’s that Michael, the dagotyper. I knew she was after him the moment I saw them together. He’s on the mountainside, and she’s gone after him. Mark my words.”

“Yeah, it’s madness when someone falls in love with a man they’ve just met,” said Megan. It took Claudine a moment to catch on.

“Are you talking about Alexis? What Alexis and I have is Pure. It’s not like other loves.”

“You’ve only met him once,” ventured Lizzie. Claudine was well used to putting up with Megan’s sniping, but this attack from an unexpected source riled her more than she would have cared to admit.

“What are you talking about, Lizzie? Me and Alexis, we talked all the time. Now he’s up on the mountain being brave, braver than anyone, especially than that Michael — or —”, she looked round for her usual audience, though she may for a moment have forgotten the original purpose of her game, “— or than any of the lads round here. Alexis is a hero, and he’s a gentleman, and, most of all, he’s a true man.”

Far, far away, after a night of watchfulness and frequent alarms, though there was sign neither of the ghostly laughter nor of robbers, Alexis, Gordon, Michael and Derek were finishing their breakfast. They were to set off shortly, taking the Mechcart as far as it would go, and then, for Gordon and Alexis, continuing the ascent on foot.

Michael had an announcement.

“Listen, friends—”, he wondered if he had mis-played it by calling them ‘friends’. Would ‘colleagues’ have been better, or ‘fellow-adventurers’, or, simply, to Gordon and Alexis, ‘sirs’? “I can’t go with you in the Mechcart up the mountainside.”

“Why ever not?”, said Alexis.

“Well, really—”, Michael had not quite expected to have to defend his decision, “the thing is, with this leg, I mean, I need to be back here to get a really good shot of you with those fireworks. This really is the very best vantage point. But that would mean driving with you in the Mechcart to the other side of the pass, and then walking all the way back again. I don’t think I’ll manage it. I really don’t think I could do it.”

“Who’ll keep Derek company?”, asked Gordon.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, sir.” Said Derek. “I’ll sit cosy in the cart and sew up my coat. Been meaning to do that. I can think humble thoughts, and meditate on the enlightenment of my soul.”

Gordon raised one eyebrow. He had never quite expected Derek to discuss souls, enlightened or unenlightened. What he did not know was that the phrase was a common catchphrase at that time in the Robber’s Lair, although quite possibly no-one using it had very little inkling of what it was supposed to mean.

“Won’t you be afraid of being attacked by the robbers?”, said Gordon, to Michael.

“Oh, I think he’ll be quite safe,” said Derek, interrupting. He seemed implausibly keen for Michael to stay behind. “I don’t think they’ll dare to show their faces here for a bit.”

“Well, of course, of course,” said Gordon, as if he thought he might have perhaps offended Derek by playing down the effect of his heroics.

“I think it’s rather poor spirit,” said Alexis, “but if you’re leg really won’t stand a little walk across the valley, then you’d better stay here. But I shall count the number of dagotypes you take, and if they’re not up to scratch, it will come out of your bonus.”

That was the end of breakfast. Gordon and Alexis loaded their climbing supplies onto the Mechcart — things they had brought with them from Bidforst, supplemented by things which they had previously had brought for them and left in the the cabin — while Derek made quite a show of assembling enough food to last him more than a week. He told them that waiting was hungry work, and he had no intention of starving. Alexis and Gordon patted him on the back, and said “of course, of course”.

Alexis was quite short with Michael, and neither said goodbye nor waved as they drove off, but Gordon took the time to shake his hand and mutter, “I know what you’re about, Michael, and I would do exactly the same thing in your place. Get us a few pictures of that spirit-girl. I’ll square it with Alexis if it comes to it. If it gets to be a big thing, and I think it will, he’ll forget he was ever against it and say it was all his own idea. But watch that leg.”

Then they were gone, the Mechcart slowly picking its way among the boulders on the other side, and Michael, standing in the gateway to the castle watching them away.

Once he was sure they were out of sight, he quickly returned to the hut and got out his Zeiss dagotyper and several rolls of film. His foot was still a little tender, but nothing that would really inconvenience him provided he picked his way carefully. He stuffed some bars of chocolate from the tin box and a brown-paper bag full of raisins into his coat pockets, and took a few minutes to finish off the coffee. He wondered about bringing a cup to heat snow in to drink, but eventually decided that, if he went along that road, he would end up taking half of the contents of the hut with him, when what he really needed was to be able to move quickly. But he did take a box of matches, and wrapped a length of rope over his shoulder. Then he was ready. He set out through the castle gate, and began to cast his way about, looking for anything which might or might not be a clue.

The Mechcart performed admirably on the mountain side. That is to say, it took them about a mile along their way, at more or less the speed a donkey would go, and eventually reached the point which Alexis adjudged to be its terminus, rather earlier than a donkey would have done.

“Now, where’s that dratted picture-maker when you need him?”, he said testily. The other two smiled. Gordon knew that Alexis would be much better company once there was no longer an audience for him to play to. Derek knew — well, you will see what Derek knew shortly.

Gordon and Alexis climbed off the cart, and, reminding Derek that he must wait at that exact spot, and be there whenever they got back, which they estimated at being around lunchtime on Sunday, but might be sooner or later, set off up the mountain. Derek for his part shook their hands and promised that he would be the very model of someone who watched and waited.

Their climb to begin with was little more than a steep walk, though a steep walk on a hard crust of refrozen snow. The path was clear enough, both from the map that they had made during their balloon ride, and from the way the snow lay flat rather than bumpy ahead of them.

“So, you really think man can tame the mountain?”, said Gordon. When it was just the two of them, Alexis was an excellent conversationalist.

“Well, now, really. I think it can. I rather think it can. This path — for example — widen it here, and change the banking there, and give it an extra wiggle right back at that point down there to decrease the gradient, and coat the whole thing in asphalt, and you could have a road better than any road in Winchester. A road right to the top of the mountain.”

“But who would take such a road?”

“Tourists, sightseers, anyone looking to go the most direct route, rather than wiggling through the hinterland and round the pass. I mean, look —” they had come up onto a wide vista, which showed the great promontory which reached towards the village and the old Roman road Ricknield Street. The village was almost invisible, either hidden behind the foot-hill, or shrouded in haze, but the Roman road ran like a sharp line drawn across the landscape, as far as the eye could see. “Look, if you cut straight up that long hill, continuing the road, you would come up about —, well, over there somewhere. There’s obviously a much more direct route on the Western side of the mountain, but no-one is taking it now because there’s no road there, and because they would find the prospect too daunting. But, imagine the rise of the Mechcart. Imagine that, perhaps, let me be daring, think what it would be like if every family, or, perhaps every four families together, were to share a Mechcart. Thousands upon thousands of them on the roads, going tirelessly from place to place, stopping only every sixty miles to recharge their cells. To a Mechcart, an asphalt road would be pure heaven, whether it was flat across a plain, or at a steep slope up a mountain. See, there, from the village to the beginning of the mountain is five miles, less perhaps. From there to the summit another five. Perhaps a little more. And then the land slopes down more gently on the other side, so add another twenty before you are out of it. We had to go sixty miles just to reach the pass, and it would be another forty on the other side. A hundred miles, where forty would have done just as well.”

“Is it only roads you would put on the mountain?”

“Heavens no. Of course, we will put the water-wheels there first. We will use the limitless power of falling water to drive electricalish construction machines. Along side the roads, which we can build fast, far faster than anyone imagines, we will have hotels, chalets, bungalows, inexpensive maisonettes, perhaps even little flats that the poor and foolish can buy shares in, visiting them for just two weeks in every year. Cable cars, of course, and ski slopes.”

“You’re not worried about avalanches?”

“Pfft! Avalanches. There is undoubtedly a scientificalish solution to the problem of the avalanche. Great struts can be inserted, for example, to bolster the snow and stop it from slipping.”

“I’m not sure about that,” said Gordon. “Back home, I’ve seen one or two avalanches. They are quite awesome. I doubt that buttressing and strutting would hold them back.”

“That merely means that no-one has yet fully put their mind to their eradication. Now, what is this?”

They had come to the first obstacle. The path led straight to an ice-cliff, and stopped. There was no particular point in skirting the cliff to the left, because the path led downwards, and none at all in skirting to the right, as there was a drop of perhaps twenty feet to a scree slope below.

Gordon uncoiled a length of rope, and Alexis started fitting crampons to his boots.

Far below, Derek had finished sewing up his coat. It was not a repair that a tailor might have made, but it was serviceable enough. Looking over his shoulder to check that Alexis and Gordon really were out of sight, he set off, on foot, back down the path, aiming to skirt the pass so that he did not run into Michael, and by that route come to the Robber’s Lair, where he could drink and play cards until it was time to come back on the Sunday and greet his employers, possibly with further tales of his daring-do.

Even further below, and on the other side of the pass, Michael had still found no trace of the lights, or the laughter, or the dancing girl. But he did not give up hope. Pausing to eat some chocolate and raisins, he decided that he would now return to the castle, sleep until night fall, and then set off in the darkness which seemed her preferred time. He would not be able to capture pictures in the dark, but he could track her until morning came, getting his pictures then.

It was not perhaps an entirely well-developed or considered plan, but it was enough to keep Michael’s spirits up while he walked.

Now we must return for a while to the village. The crowd had eventually dispersed, though, here and there, clumps of villagers stood whispering on street corners, which was unusual for Bidforst at any time of year except high summer. It was not long before they had something else to gossip about.

Angry words were heard from a side-street. There was a sound as of running feet, more angry words, and the unmistakeable sound of a glove being slapped against someone’s face.

“You challenge me, then?” — it was a voice like the voice of —

“I challenge you!” — that was unmistakably the voice of Sedan, the Frenchman who everyone knew to be a spy.

From the side-street spilled out into the High Street a scene which had seldom been visited on the village for a century. Sedan had thrown down his hat and cloak, and Lomax, for Lomax was the owner of the other voice, had taken off his winter coat. They stood facing each other, three yards apart, Lomax with a rapier which had been a sword-stick, and Sedan with an officer’s sword from the French cavalry.

They drew their swords up to their noses, and wafted them downwards in salute.

“En Garde, then!”, shouted Lomax.

“En Garde!”, agreed Sedan.

Then they were at it, hammer and tongs. Sedan, who was angriest, went for Lomax like a whirlwind, his blade flying hither and thither as he eluded his enemies parries, or struck back when the blade found his. Lomax stepped back, and back, trying to draw Sedan into overreaching himself, so that, with a simple parry riposte, he could skewer his opponent and see him off for good.

Lomax was now up against the wall, but his cool head was beginning to tell against Sedan’s temper. Twice Sedan slipped, and only managed to stop himself from falling, and twice he had to parry Lomax’s thrust lying almost prone on the flagstones as he pushed himself back upwards with his free hand.

“Stop!”, yelled a voice from up the street, “Stop this at once!”

Into sight, the constable came running, blowing on his whistle, while from the other direction came Geoffrey. He had drawn his own sword, also from a sword-stick (the villagers had not until then realised quite how many of them there were about) and, jumping into the fray, he got his blade — and his body — between the two adversaries.

“Magistrate!”, said Lomax, sizing up the new situation in an instant. “I insist you arrest this man, who attacked me in an unprovoked assault.”

“I ACCUSE”, yelled Sedan, completely unable to modulate his anger, “THIS MAN of MURDERING PROFESSOR FIEDEL!”

There was a sudden hush. Murder was as foreign to village life as duelling in the streets.

The constable came up.

“Which should I arrest, sir?”, he said.

“Is Professor Fiedel dead?”

“I have no idea,” said Lomax. “I have not seen Fiedel since yesterday. If he is dead, it is none of my doing and nothing to do with me.”

“Is Professor Fiedel dead?”, said Geoffrey again, this time turning to Sedan. Sedan was still red in the face and beside himself with rage.

“Dead — or as good as”, he spluttered.

“Well, which is it?”, said Geoffrey. “I can’t very well have a man arrested for murder when the alleged victim is still alive.”

“He lies — drugged — fighting for his life — asleep — at the doctor’s house, down there.”

“Well, is he asleep, or is he fighting for his life?”

Someone tugged at Geoffrey’s arm.

“Pleasing your honour, the doctor’s house isn’t down there, it’s over there.”

“And the doctor is away”, said someone else.

“There you are,” said Lomax, “all complete nonsense. I am accused of murdering a man who is alive, and who lies asleep and awake at the house of a doctor who is not here, and it is the wrong house.”

The constable had had enough. Producing a pair of handcuffs from his belt, he locked them onto Sedan’s wrists.

“Emmanuel Sedan, I am arresting you on a charge of public affray, and the making of false allegations against a resident of this village. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say now may be taken down and used as evidence against you in a court of law. Now, have you anything to say?”

“Only that I tell the truth, and this man lies, and it is he, not I, who is a spy!”

Geoffrey gestured to the constable, who led Sedan away. When Geoffrey looked back, Lomax was nowhere to be seen.

On the other side of the mountain, Derek picked his way carefully among the paths. A stiff drink was in his mind, and real food — not the tinned stuff which he hated — and various other delights of the Robbers’ lair which he had not been able to sample since taking on the role of a respectable factotum. The light was going fast, leaving the the world bathed in the blue evening half-light. He had no fears about losing his way, but he did not want to be mistaken by a hidden scout for an honest man, since honest men are to robbers what robbers are to honest men, when they approach their homes.

Michael, however, was entirely lost. He had found no sign of the lights or the voices or the dancer, but, having decided to return to the castle and sleep until evening, he could not find the paths that he had taken to get there either. He was in several minds what to do. He had heard that you could make a bivouac in snow, and quite comfortably spend the night without fear of the elements. But the snow looked awfully cold to be making any kind of a bivouac in, and, now that he thought about it, he did not have any particularly clear mental picture of what a bivouac might be. Was it a hole you dug in the ground? Or did you try to construct a lean-to with a piece of cloth and a boulder. He had no cloth, aside from the coat he was wearing, and he was reluctant to give that up, though he had plenty of rope. He looked hard at the rope. He wondered if it were possible to weave rope into a bivouac, but the only thing he had heard that could be woven with a rope was a net. Then he looked up at the stars — for once, the clouds were gone, and the stars shone down brightly. Supposing he were to make a net, and bring down some of the stars? They would be warm, and one of them might have a bivouac, or know another star that had one, and they could all snuggle up together in a bivouac with hot and cold running water, and boulders which kept off the wind, and offered clean handkerchieves to those in need.

For now, he thought, the best thing to do would be to sit down on the snow, and wait to see if a bivouac came past. There was no point in trying to net or construct a bivouac if there was a chance that one might be passing at any moment.

He began to feel delightfully warm. Warmth was spreading up though his feet, through the boulders, down along the snow where the fairies were turning into angel cakes, and the angels were climbing down from the fir trees where they had been made to stand on account of a shortage of Christmas baubles.

It really was time to sleep, though he thought he would presently help himself to a piece of pumpkin.

A light flashed in front of his eyes. He tried to fend it off. It was not the time for lights. It was the time for sleep. Then a heavenly scent wafted past his nose, and golden hair waved past his eyelids. He knew the hair was golden, even though his eyes were closed—

Suddenly he sat up, and clambered to his feet. He felt slow, and knew that he had been falling into the state of delirium which is called hypothermia.

Lights flickered around him — were they real lights, or was he dreaming that he had woken? He jumped up and down, but then did not know if he were really jumping up and down, or jumping up and down in his dream.

Then he heard the voice. It was the same voice as the other night.

“It’s this way, it is. It’s this way. It’s this way it is, it’s this way.”

He glanced this way and that, and saw, momentarily on the ridge, the shape of the dancing girl. He clambered after her, his dagotyper banging against him as he did, and, by this, in some strange way, he knew that he now really was awake.

The lights flickered, and the voice called him again, but more distantly. He redoubled his efforts, and set off, running over icy ridges and snowy troughs, after the golden haired dancing figure.

Gordon and Alexis had scaled the first cliff without difficulty. It was a text-book cliff, from Madison’s Cliffs, book two. The light was good, so they had continued on up a path that led from it, and thence to a rocky ledge which was free of snow, and where some grass grew. There they had eaten raisins and chocolate, and taken a sip from a patent tonic bottle which Alexis was keen to try out. There was a tiny stream trickling past the ledge, part icicle, part icy water, and they both had a long drink from that before moving on.

It was not long before they reached a cliff which was part rock, and part ice, and this was what gave them real trouble. The handholds were good to begin with, but then they found the rock above to be rotten, and it came away whenever they tried to seize it. If they hammered spikes into it, the spikes came away too, so they were forced to follow the good rock left, always going more to the left than they were going upwards. Gordon — he was the better mountaineer — went first, and Alexis held the rope as he went behind. There were far fewer places to anchor the rope than Gordon would have liked, and, looking back, he realised that they had already gone far too far.

The dark began to draw in on them. They had somehow missed the sunset, which must have been occluded by the cliff face when they made that funny turn, and now the dusk had deepened to the point that it was hard to see what was a hand-hold and what was merely a shadow.

Just as Gordon was beginning to think desperate thoughts, a light appeared above him. Not a powerful light, nor yet a constant light, but, nonetheless, a light. In that light he could just-to-say make out a ledge some way above him. If he could get there, then he could instruct Alexis as to exactly where he should put his feet, or, failing that, haul him up with the rope.

Straining and reaching and panting hard, he somehow dragged himself up the rock face. His one thought was to reach the ledge while there was light enough to do it. There was no time to hammer anchor points for the rope. He was going to make it — he was going to make it.

With a last great effort he pulled himself up the to edge, and looked over it. He could never quite remember what happened exactly after that. He felt that someone had taken his hand, and he distinctly remembered the words

“Over you go, then”.

What is certain is that he fell backwards from the ledge. He fell four times his own height before the first anchor caught the rope. But it caught it only for an instant. Like a piece of string pulling on loose staples, the anchor points flew one by one from the cliff-face as he fell. He went tumbling down a slope that was no longer sheer cliff, but was no place to brace himself, and, by the cry above and to the right, he knew that Alexis too was now falling.

Then something else falling banged his head, and the next thing he knew he was scrabbling, crawling, hanging on for dear life in the face of grim death. His hands had fixed on something — not rope, perhaps a tree root — which gave slightly, and, though it did give, he knew that he was no longer falling.

“Alexis”, he called hoarsely, but there was no response.

Gordon was alone, in the dark, in mid-winter, hanging onto a tree-root on the side of the mountain.

Chapter Seven will appear on Friday, New Year’s Eve.