For a time our fingers brushed a ripple of code in the dark beside us. It was an ancient code that none of us understood but guessed they had been made by the underfolk, for they were a short people and the ripples were low for our fingers.
That day we did not stop to ponder them, but ran. They lead us to a division, a choice of paths, and that day we took the upward way. It was not a path I had tried before.
“A short cut,” said Ramedd tersely. “And we don’t want to spend too long on it.”
That I believed. The hidden camp we had left behind was a beautiful place, sheltered from cold winds, but it was already high up in the mountain side. Higher up, the air would be thin and far colder. Too cold for me.
Not too cold for some things to seek shelter in the darkness, sleeping away the day, waiting for night and hunting once more. Some of them were disturbed as we squeezed and climbed and crawled past them. They squeaked, and we cursed in return. Slidders glowed, startled, and the light of them glanced off the gold armour of the giants and played around us.
It is one thing to catch and keep a few slidders to light a camp at night, but in the underworld the glow of them is a signal to other hunters that something is moving. Slidders live on the blood that falls near them.
A breeze stirred around us.
Bassei put her mouth close to my ear, her lips tickling my vanes as they stirred in the changing air.
Then there was an emptiness. She had gone with the others.
With my back against a wall, I waited. Were the others waiting for something to attack me? Using me for bait? Of course they knew something that I didn’t, and of course they had a plan. I just wished I knew what it was.
The breeze came from the depths below us. It was rising toward some crack in the mountain above us. When I listened carefully, vanes flared wide to catch the faintest sound, there was a hiss, a faint whistle, the air sighing out of the mountain. There was no scent of a hunter on it, but then there wouldn’t be.
I climbed further upwards. It was cold, but there was a pale chink of light in the darkness. The mountain had an eye, and I saw the forms of the others moving across it, getting something ready. I crept closer.
It was an inner eye the mountain had, a cold, pale version of our hidden camp. It looked only to other mountain walls that rose in slabs against each other in pale brown and the soft grey of clouds milling against them.
Cold burnt my lips. I had just time to see that the others were preparing a flying fox to get us across the cloudy floor below. Their hoods and helmets were pulled low over their faces, and their vanes had cupped their mouths and noses, the tendrils of their manes wrapped across the delicate vanes to protect them, as always, to keep the cold from burning their lungs.
As Ramedd had said, we did not want to take too long here. They were champion trained. They were Caffiri, and among the things they knew was how to control the temperature of their bodies, and so they could stand out there and prepare their ropes while I could only sit in the cave and shiver.
It was the same practice of the mind that Bassei had used to take the gold and not die. She had been given the living gold to drink, and she had survived. The plainsking had ordered her to take the gold. He had given it to her and watched her, ready to see her die. Death always seemed about to take her, and yet it did not. The very first time I ever heard of her was in a note of surprise: She had disappeared, and her people had thought her dead, but she was alive. At the far end of the world she had been found again.
“Poet.” Again Bassei’s lips nuzzled under my vanes so that I could hear her words. I resisted the impulse to grab a fistful of her mane and pull her head back so that I might kiss her throat. This was not the time or place. Yet her breath in my ears warmed me. “When you cross, climb up and sunwards. There is another cave. Go in. When you are safe, wait for us.”
With parts of my cloak wrapped about my hands I held the ropes. I tested the grip so that I would not slip, and nearly fell anyway when Bassei gave a shove and we were off.
It would have been nice to watch the clouds slide past below us, but all I could think of was hanging on, of breathing, Bassei’s weight against me. We slid into Ramedd’s grasp. My legs were sluggish in the cold. It was all I could do to keep myself moving. The women took no notice. They were already turning their attention to the giants who still had to cross. All I could do was turn away and concentrate on reaching the cave as I had been told to do.
At least there were some crevices in the rock to hang on to and so keep moving.
That was when we saw the Ice Bird.
Ice Birds make sharp and sudden shadows in the clouds, their wings out wide and clawed at the points, and dripping with a moisture that, when touched, is not merely dew from the air around them but is thick like slime or the slow blood of cavern worms. Not many people have ever touched an Ice Bird, for the birds live ever gliding in the cloudy domains and rising from beneath their prey to pierce it with their beaks and drag it down bloodily into the pale mist. Mountain folk know the fall of blood dew, its sudden splatter and deep knell that comes down from the sky. They said the knell came from its head dome, which was sometimes a blood stained colour. A few head domes had come to the City. They were brittle and porous, but hunters said that at first the domes were damp and soft like lungs. Hunters said a lot of things, especially the few who had managed to kill an Ice Bird and bring back a trophy, but singers knew about lungs and thought the hunters had chosen their words correctly. The deep knell came when the air sighed out of them and they sank once more into the clouds.
That head dome was the first thing to be seen when the Ice Bird first rose up. At first it looked like a small, furred thing nosing its way on the forest floor, but faster and more smoothly. Then it rose. It rose and became the bell dome of an Ice Bird. Beneath the dome, small eyes glittered. Its long beak opened, directed at the motion of Elurd alone above the chasm. His gold armour shone brightly in the sunlight. He was moving fast, but predictably. The Ice Bird knew exactly where to attack.
“Look out,” I shrieked, and heard my voice muffled against my mane.
Yet in an instant Ramedd had her bolas out. She was the pride of the plains, Ramedd, the best with the bolas, and even clinging to a mountain wall she had a way to get them moving and arc out to tangle the Ice Bird’s body.
The Ice Bird screamed, purple tongue rippling in its throat.
Elurd swung his feet forwards, Bassei pulled him in.
We heard the Ice Bird’s knell. It was deep toned, but not like the tolling of any bell. It was like a voice, with breath in it. Then the bird was gone and not even its dome could be seen.
“Guts take it,” Ramedd swore. “Now I’ve lost my bolas.”
Elurd tried to placate her, but Bassei had already sent the rope back to Uram. He gave a good tug of the rope, to make sure it was still strong. Giants were never sure that ropes were strong enough for them, especially after they had already been used by others. If he waited too long, though, the Ice Bird might have time to return.
He kicked off.
“Beware,” I cried, with the trick of mountain people who make themselves heard across canyons and howling winds. My voice carried, although I slipped a little on the rock I was clinging to, and the women looked up. “Look out!”
The bird was rising towards him. I shrieked. With the bird’s own voice, I cried out across the clouds.
It heard me. Veering about it sought its rival. We heard its cry. I tried to flee, scrambling across the stony wall of the mountain, hands wrapped in the ends of my cloak and fingers scrabbling through the cloth to keep a grip on the cracks.
Bassei’s spear struck a wing. The beak reached around and broke the length. The bird glared back at me, and screeched.
Staring down its throat I could only scream right back at it.
Suddenly it jerked away, sinking down.
I heard the voices of the others shouting, and finally got myself into the cave.
They had roped it. My friends had roped an Ice Bird.
“And the blood's warm,” Uram added.
The giants, who had been forced to cast off some of their gear and push it down ahead of them in order to get through the hole, sat and made use of their salt-licks. Simply holding those rocks made them calmer, as if what they held was a plan. What they held was a cure for the illness of the giant kind.
Bassei lead us onwards, and we hurried. The air was thicker here, not thin and cold as it had been outside, and we should have guessed that something would be living there.
We made one of our leaps in the dark. These were not as terrifying as the white chasm outside. Here there were echoes to guide us and we leapt, and landed near water, and only then realised that there was another scent around us.
That was when voices spoke to us out of the dark. They spoke in a long, low growl.
In midstep we froze, ambushed.
We ran, but the path was broken before us. Other air breathed up from below, sighing at us. The others leapt and I followed them, landed where I had heard them land, and ran on as they had run on, and all the time thinking, Bassei, Bassei.
We were on a cliff. The drop was as steep as any canyon wall, but trees grew from it. A stream sprang from it and ran down to join the rivers on the plain, and among the rivers stood the white walls of the City. It looked small and distant, a long way down but a quick one. We jumped.
Next Ch 03
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