About thirty miles out, she snakes left, down
the half-hidden track, between two lines of trees. The boggy ground
here has turned to permafrost since she last came through. It
makes for a bumpy ride. She stands up onto the pegs, bouncing
hard from one frozen rut to the next. Elbows out, knees kinked,
she brings her weight forward and down, over the Tiger’s
front wheel. Behind smoked glass, she is scanning the track, eyes
narrowed, searching for trouble. But the Tiger’s an old
pro, and handles the job without fuss.
After a few hundred bone-shaking yards, the trees thin out, and
a gate bars the way. She dismounts to open it, leaving the Tiger
in tickover. Back in the saddle, she rumbles through, just pausing
to watch the latch drop home, before giving the throttle a twist,
and heading up onto the downs.
Out here, on the slippery turf, she pushes the pace as much as
she dares. The hill is steep and crusted with ice, and she is
forced to weave to stay upright. It will be dark before long.
The sky is turning from white to pewter, and a thin, frozen mist
curls down from the ridge. The wind is dropping now, but the air
has acquired an edge that would cut flint. She thinks it could
snow, tonight. Neither she nor the Tiger like snow.
Soon, she comes to a track, cut into the chalk. With a sigh of
relief, she joins it, and rides sedately along, following the
broad sweep of the hill, round, up and over the ridge. When they
reach the shrine, she reigns in on the throttle. The Tiger settles,
sinking into a deep, contented rumble. She lets it run a moment
longer, and pulls off her helmet and gloves. Then, with a flick
of her wrist, she silences it.
They have come to rest in a hollow, tucked into in the hillside
like a cave with no roof. It is steep-sided, and white-walled,
the exposed chalk gleaming, pale and glacial in the dusk. There
is almost no sound here. Instead, a chilled hush hangs about the
place, an almost visible haze, drifting about like the mist from
the ridge. In the centre of the hollow is a little cairn of white
stones. It is built up on three sides around a broad slab of soot-blackened
chalk. Around its edges are groups of objects: bunches of withered
herbs and flowers; little figures carved inexpertly from stone;
and several small plaques, beaten from thin bronze, crudely impressed
She dismounts, leaving the Tiger at rest on its stand. The cold
air tilts at her, licking at the tips of her ears and her wrists,
searching for a way in. But she is protected, for now. The tough,
leather defences of her suit have been well-fortified, proof against
cold for a few hours more, at least. Still, she moves swiftly.
The shrine is no place to be caught overnight.
She crosses the flat gravel, and kneels down in front of the cairn.
Quickly, she dips her head, touching one hand to her shoulder.
Then she unclips her crossbow and knife, and lays them down beside
her. Rummaging in the flat leather bag that is slung across her
body, she draws out an odd-shaped packet. It is small, and tightly
wrapped in leaves, tied up with several lengths of string. She
places this on the cairn. Then, reaching inside her collar, takes
out a firesteel, strung on a cord round her neck. She slips it
off, and, holding it close to the packet, strikes it. There is
a tiny, metallic screech. A vivid flash. Slivers of steel ignite,
in a shower of sparks. She blows gently, and a little peak of
blue flame appears. She blows again, and it swells, spreading
across the dried leaves, which start to blacken and curl. The
flames grow ragged, flushing green, then gold. The packet snaps
irritably, flares up, and bursts open. A thin stream of smoke
rises, hissing, from the little pyre. It circles and spreads,
and finally sinks down, in a veil, over her hair and her skin.
She breathes it in, sorting the parts of the compound scent. The
myrtle burns sweetly, cut with the spicy bite of cloves. But underneath
are the deeper, resinous notes of balsam, amber and dark liquorice
When the flames die down, she stirs the remains of the packet
with the tip of the firesteel. There is little left – just
a feathery mass of ash and soot, and a few charred stalks round
the edges. She nods. Touches her hand to her shoulder once more.
Then reaches down for her gear. When she is ready, she stands,
and turns on her heel. Her steel-shanked boots crunch on the stones,
as she makes her way back to the Tiger. There, for a moment, she
stands still. Resting her hand on the glossy black tank, she looks
out over the darkening downs. A single flake of snow comes down,
spiralling and chaotic, as though it has lost its way. It settles
on the edge of a wing mirror, and hangs there, shivering. Then,
another drifts down beside it. Time to be going. She dons her
helmet and gloves, and swings back into the saddle. At her touch,
the Tiger awakens. It gives a little, restrained growl of welcome,
and crouches, awaiting command. She kicks up the stand, turns
on the lights, and leaning forward, gives the throttle a nudge.
The Tiger responds with a gusty roar, and she lets off the brake
with her foot. Together, they move out and head down the long
path, into the valley below.