Chapter Twenty-Six

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With only one husky, it’s slow going—visibility poor, the ground jagged and uneven beneath the thick layer of snow, the horizon obliterated. A misstep, and they too could slip off the edge of the world. From time to time they catch a glimpse of the moon, and Lev reckons the storm has moved on. Behind them floats a vapour trail, the ghostly wake of their perspiration and breath. It’s worrying, for the wind is too light to disperse it quickly, the flurries too sparse. At least there’s no sign of pursuit. Lev is heading eastwards towards the pack ice, hoping to find a way to avoid the long coastal detour. And at one stretch along the shore, weathered granite cliffs promise, at best, a steep haul; Zach has no clue what they’ll do about Bella (or the sledge) should they need to climb.

Sweating and grim, they struggle to shift the sledge over a particularly bad patch of rocky outcrop, slick with ice and frozen snow. The runners are badly pitted and need re-icing. In the end they’re obliged to offload part of their gear, what’s left of it after jettisoning as much as possible to accommodate the loss of the dogs. They half drag, half carry the lightened sledge to a shallow basin harled like plaster, station Bella with their pile of equipment, and backtrack for the remainder. By then they’re ready for a break, and Zach would like to pitch the tent and call it a day. His muscles are shaking with cold and exhaustion as he drinks the steaming high-energy quarsh Lev forces on him; he can’t bring himself to choke down a nut bar. But Lev is clearly keen to press on, for he allots them barely an hour’s rest, then cuts it short when the wind begins to pick up.

‘I hope we’re not killing ourselves for nothing,’ Zach says.

Lev secures the last webbing strap across their supplies box—lighter than aluminium, some kind of alloy. Normally clean shaven, he hasn’t bothered in the last few days, and his whiskers have frozen to his face mask. He grimaces as he pulls it free to speak.

‘There’s no other hunting camp within reach. Bella is doing her best, but going back to base would take us far too long, even if we retrieved the rest of the supplies. In the Arctic, hunger is as much a killer as the cold. Because of the cold.’ He casts a look behind him, then gazes out towards the ice with all the appearance of a man with time on his hands.

‘Maybe you ought to play a round of Pace,’ Zach mutters sullenly under his breath as he bends to attach Bella’s harness.

Lev too has moments when he needs to prove something. ‘Be a good boy scout, and I might just whip you up a cosy iglu and an even cosier supply of seal.’

‘Fuck your—’

‘Take it easy, lad, your learning curve is flattening by the second.’ He goes to the sledge, burrows deep into one of the packs, and returns with the clarinet case. ‘But I’m glad you’ve reminded me of my little toys. Here, it’s best you keep this on you, alongside that nifty pocket knife of yours.’ He hands Zach the clarinet. ‘And though you may not feel inclined to believe me right now, you can trust me. No matter what happens, just remember to keep practising.’

‘Yeah, blowing my guts out is a great way to end it all.’

All trace of levity vanishes from Lev’s face. ‘They call you Corvus. How about trying to live up to it?’ He sees that Zach is about to protest. ‘No, be quiet and listen to me. I may not get another chance. You should pay attention to your own myths. Like the one in which, at the beginning of time, Raven made the world.’

In exasperation Zach swings round to Bella, who is a much more companionable companion, and who probably would talk much more sense too. As he squats to fondle her head, he can’t help thinking of Max. Is he OK? Knowing that you’re needed, desperately needed, by someone who has come to feel like your squirrelly kid brother is daunting—humbling—but it’s a reason (on good days) to keep breathing, not any of that Corvus crap. Christ, he thought that at least here he’d

The blow knocks him sprawling on top of the dog.

Bella yelps and manages to scramble out from under, but Zach is pinned facedown in the snow by an enormous weight. Then he hears a groan and rough breathing, realises that it’s a body lying on top of him. An injured body, by the sound of it.

‘Lev?’ he tries to say, but his face is mashed into a drift, and his goggles have been pushed askew. He works his face from side to side, small paddling movements, until he’s able to suck in some air. ‘Lev,’ he mumbles frozenly.

The weight on Zach shunts sideways just enough for him to scull his arms beneath him, looking for purchase. He hears Bella’s whimper in the background, then a low voice which raises his adrenaline level sharply. Bracing himself on his elbows, he tenses. The smell of urine is strong now, and he wonders what damage he’ll do by heaving Lev off him—if it’s Lev. But he’s not about to wait passively for what’s coming.

The choice is taken from him. A grunt, and the body is rolled away. With a movement like a fish flipping on dry land, he’s over and ready to spring. For the first time today he’s grateful for the gruelling terrain, which has kept them from using their stubby skis.

A figure is leaning over Lev. Zach has only time to make it to his feet before the man straightens and aims an outstretched arm at Lev’s head. There’s a burst of light. A sound like a balloon bursting. In one rush the air escapes—then nothing, nothing left to breathe.

With a howl Bella springs.

‘Don’t kill her!’ Zach hurtles across the intervening distance, raising a fine shrapnel of frozen powder. Her sharp yelp is lost in the carnival roar of mortality. Is that a laugh he hears from the croaker who’s done this?

Wildly he spins round. ‘Lev—’

Snow, whitewashed clean.

He drops to his knees at her side, pulls off a mitt, feels for a pulse in her throat. She’s not breathing. Oh god, she’s not breathing. Shakes her, too roughly. ‘Breathe, damn you, just breathe!’ Dips a finger in the blood seeping from an ear. Puts it to his lips.

‘You needn’t have swallowed,’ he told Laura.

‘I wanted to,’ she said. ‘I wanted you to know how I feel.’

Nothing left to breathe.

The instant before blackness descends, Zach sees other figures like golden specks at the edge of his vision, a shower of chevrons drifting downwards from the sky, parachutes—no, wings—fluttering and folding gracefully behind them.

And in the middle distance, an indigo-tinted shadow, barely perceptible, which quivers like milk set to boil. Seismic stress. Then the image sharpens into a small hummock, canted to the leeward—a hummock that is stealing forward soundlessly with its nose in the snow and its hindquarters slightly elevated.