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 with symbols.
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 root.
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.

Dena Grabinar

online creative writing school


fiction writing and online classes