Five minutes later I was feeling much less smug. We were standing at the end of the path, or at least, the snow stopped us tracing the path any further, and the wide plain ahead was a mass of anonymous white bumps and lumps.
“Which way now?” asked Stack.
“Eastwards to the Power Hills,” answered Hawk.
“Ah,” replied Hawk. “How can we tell, when there aren’t any trees to read?”
I nearly said, “By the sun,” but stopped myself just in time. There wasn’t a trace of the sun to be seen, even though the air was so much warmer than yesterday.
Hawk looked around. “That’s the rock shoulder we came round when we hit the wind yesterday,” he mused. “Now we climbed up the slope and that was east of where we crossed the river, so when we came over the crest we should still have been going eastwards. Yes?”
Stack shrugged. “Sounds reasonable. But you can see our track from that shoulder. We’re a little south of that line. So east is that way.” He pointed slightly left of the way we were facing.
“Exactly. So let’s go.” Hawk led us confidently forward across the plain.
It all went well at first; but the lumps and bumps soon hid our backward track, and the crest was quickly out of sight in the mist. It was strange and intensely uncomfortable, feeling both so open and exposed, and yet so enclosed and blinded. We could navigate only by keeping in a straight line as far as possible, so we went over bumps, not round them, in order not to lose the line, and this was hard work in the soft snow. Then Stack stepped on a low bump that stood up and ran away, leaving Stack flat on his back.
Hawk and I looked at each other and laughed our heads off.
Three or four other bumps stood up and ran off, as well. They were weird looking animals; imagine a roe deer with a black face, but with everything except its face wrapped in a thick layer of fireweed seeds, or dandelion clocks – and I mean thick; a thumb depth at least. They made a sort of “Baa baa” sound as they ran, and they came together in a little huddle so they were obviously herd animals.
“What on earth are they?” I asked Hawk when we’d stopped laughing and Stack had stopped swearing at us.
Stack shook off the last of the snow on his cloak. “They’re what made the tracks on the way up the hill.” He pointed into the snow, and Hawk nodded. “They look good eating.”
“And their skins must be warm, with all that curly hair on them. Let’s have a go.”
“I’ll just hang arou…” I said to their vanishing backs. I dug myself a shelter in a snowdrift – I was really getting the hang of this snow stuff now. Then I built myself a comfortable chair from stones and snow, and waited.
The wait was very short.
“They’re so tame!” exclaimed Hawk. “They let us walk almost up to them – it’s as if they’ve never been hunted!”
“We’ve killed and skinned three, and cut out plenty of good meat.” Stack threw me a skin, and I buried my face and hands in its warm curls. When I stopped, my hands were soft and shiny, and all the chapped patches seemed to be healed. “These are brilliant – just amazing!” I exclaimed. “The Spirits are showing us such wonders!”
Amazing they were, but big they were not. Stack wrapped his fleece over his shoulders under his cloak; Hawk tied his round his waist by its legs; I borrowed Stack’s knife and cut mine in half, and wrapped them round my legs, again tying them on by the leg skins. They smelled awful, but oh – they were so warm!
We packed up the meat between us, and went on. There was still no scrap of sunlight, so we had to carry on by guess – that is, Stack and I followed Hawk’s guess – but it seemed OK; we did indeed cross many small hills and streams, just as the Mistwaters had said.
By lunchtime the air was warm and calm. There was no way to kindle a fire, but we rested for ten minutes and chewed some dried meat. It was warm enough to undo all those extra straps and ties, but still too cold to pack our cloaks away altogether. Never mind; I set out that afternoon feeling cheerful, and Hawk, I noticed, was actually whistling.
It was easy walking. We disturbed no more animals. On the whole, I thought we were climbing; the air seemed to be getting cooler, and the snow stopped thawing so quickly as the day went on. It didn’t matter. The new skins kept my legs so much warmer, I could have climbed ten times as high.
Lateish on in the afternoon, as a few fresh snowflakes began to fall, and I was beginning to think about camping, we came to an crest where the snow had blown off brittle grass; beyond it a steep slope plunged into mist.
We stood there for a moment, but Hawk shrugged. “There’s no choice,” he said, “we’ve got to go on anyway, and we need to find a campsite.”
“There’s been nothing up –” Stack began. Then a distant barking came out of the mist below us, and its echo followed it.
“Dog?” said Stack.
We waited, but the hills were silent. Then five great black birds spiralled out of the mist at our feet and soared over us. One of them gave a soft “krronnk”.
We looked at each other. “Could’ve been,” I said. “Perhaps,” said Hawk. Stack just shrugged.
We stepped down into the mist. It was steep, snowy, slippery grass, with too many stones hidden in it, and it was trying to throw us off to the right. The mist came and went and came again; one second we were hidden even from each other, the next we could see twenty or thirty paces.
Then the barking came again, much closer. And with it, a whistle, long and plaintive.
The boys stood shoulder to shoulder, spears forward, and gestured me behind. The barking came again, on our left – and was answered on our right. Hawk drew in his breath. “A pack of dogs!” he muttered. Then the barking again, on our left and behind us, and a whistle – this time a series of short toots. And barking answered; behind us and on either side. Only in front of us seemed clear.
“Move slowly forwards, as quiet as you can!” Hawk murmured. Stack nodded, and we all started to inch forward. At first everything seemed still; then the barking broke out again, two or three dogs to our right, just one left and a little behind us. We stepped cautiously forward and a little to our left. All was quiet. Perhaps they weren’t after us at all? Perhaps we’d just strayed into their path?
Then we came to the stream.
We met it at the end of a little ridge, so that the stream valley wrapped round us on three sides. It was deep cut just here, and there were sheets of ice on the banks and over all the rocks. We could not cross. We had to go along it, but either way meant going back.
We sidled right, but an explosion of barking stopped us after three paces. We backed away, and tried left. This time, there was a low growl in the mist, above us. We stopped, and the boys readied their spears.
“If you lay down your spears, the dogs will hurt you not.” It was a man’s voice, and must have been close to the growl.
“Or?” shouted Stack.
“Or the dogs will attack you, you will see them not in the mist, you will hold not your ground and you will break bones in the stream. Then you will die of cold in the water. Maybe not all of you, but some.”
“We’ll take that chance, thank you!”
“Very well.” There was a series of whistles, and another growl from in front of us. The ground was soft with trodden snow; the boys had nowhere to wedge their spears. They tucked the shafts under their arms and gripped them tight.
There was another whistle. A pause. Then Hawk fell forward, a dog on his shoulders and snapping at his head. Stack swung round, just as another dog leaped for him; he tripped and fell head first down the slope. I dropped to the ground, curling into a ball; I felt a dog leap clear over me. I wrapped my head in my arms and held my breath, expecting a bite every instant.
A man strode out of the mist and picked up the two spears. He backheeled me – his foot seemed to be covered with something – and kicked Hawk.
“Get up!” he said. We did. Very slowly and with our hands very visible.
“The other one’s down the brow,” he said over his shoulder. “Get him up. Be careful. I think he’s hurt not.”
We could see Stack clinging like a spider to the grass, head downward. Another figure reached down and held his ankle, and he crawled back up.
“Good,” said the first voice. “Now, hands in the air. Good. Walk. Downstream, and at our speed.”
It took an hour, contouring along a steep slope, slippery with ice and snow. We went at their pace, which seemed deliberately slow; so I wasn’t moving fast enough to keep warm, and I dared not drop my hands to hold my cloak closed. I was shivering long before we reached our destination.