Chapter Forty-Two

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Pani has cleared overhanging snow from a section of the crevasse, shaved away its lip, and tamped down his harpoon as reinforcement, across the shaft of which he lowers a line that reaches Zach’s brow but looks too fragile to support his weight. To loop it round his chest is all but impossible. Zach tests its hold with stiff fingers. He dare not wait till his hands are frozen into useless claws to decide between slackening grip or loose, unwieldy mitts. It will have to be the mitts.

‘Ready?’ Pani says. ‘I’m going to back away from the edge, I can anchor the line better that way, but I’m not strong enough to haul you up on my own. You’ve got to climb.’

‘Where are the others?’

Silence as Pani retreats from view.

‘Pani?’

‘There are no others.’ Though muffled, his voice quivers for an instant. ‘I’m doing the best I can. Now come on.’

A quick oath under his breath, directed at shapeshifting gatekeepers who desert their posts when most needed, then Zach grasps the strip of triple-ply hide with outstretched arms, pulls himself up till he can wrap one leg round the line—tricky to secure with heavy boots—and slowly begins to ascend. The first third is straightforward, but his arms are soon aching, and he feels the leather stretching, hears it creaking under his weight. It’ll hold a seal, won’t it? a walrus? At what he hopes is the halfway mark he stops to catch his breath and ease the strain one arm at a time by bracing himself against the wall. You can do this, he tells himself. You have to do this. When Pani calls out, a note of impatience—or is it nervousness?—in his voice, Zach prises himself loose from the ice. ‘Just resting for a second.’ Lift knees, anchor feet, stand, reach; again. How many more times?

Don’t look, he warns himself, and there’s a second when it seems he won’t, and another second when it seems it won’t matter, and one more when he says ‘oh fuck’ as, sickeningly, he plummets and thuds and rebounds and cries out and then then then the line jerks—jerks and holds.

He’s too shaken to gasp a question.

‘Zach! ZACH!’

‘I’m here. Are you OK?’

‘Hang on.’ Very slightly, the line gives. ‘The harpoon tip’s broken loose, but I’m sitting on the line. Try to hurry.’ Desperately, ‘Please.’

Zach wipes his face with the back of a mitt, cautiously, before the drops of sweat freeze and, cautiously, glances upwards. It’s not as bad as might be: he’s lost maybe two metres. Pani is alone up there; Zach can imagine only one circumstance in which Uakuak, or any of the camp for that matter, wouldn’t have rushed to help. From a distance the ice appears solid, but it shifts as all things in his life shift, precipitously and without the least regard for consequence. The sounds it makes, the deep groans and crangs of a living creature, the way it rises up to gobble the unwary: what Fulgur swallows, it never releases whole.

Ben had no fucking chance, had he?

The sudden flare of memory is intense, as jolting as an ember flicked into his inner eye: ‘Leave me alone, Ben, I’m practising.’ Not that there were ever any reprimands, any accusations of wasting Sean’s time when Zach came badly prepared to a lesson: just those quizzical brown eyes and a lift to his eyebrows, then with a patient smile, the piece played as it ought on Sean’s battered clarinet. Zach remembers how discomfited he’d been that his own instrument was so spang—so much newer and more valuable—his boyish indignation at life’s unfairness tainted, however, by a scarcely acknowledged smugness that his family could afford top quality. Had Sean realised? It would have been like him not to let on. Yet another injury for which he, Zach, won’t get to make amends.

He blinks at the hot sting of tears. ‘You’re doing a great job, Pani. I’m nearly there.’ He takes a deep breath and begins to climb.