Read Above the Snowline Online

Authors: Steph Swainston

Tags: #Fantasy

Above the Snowline

Table of Contents
Also by Steph Swainston from Gollancz:
The Year of Our War
No Present Like Time
The Modern World
The Castle Omnibus
Above the Snowline
A Gollancz eBook
Copyright © Steph Swainston 2010
All rights reserved.
The right of Steph Swainston to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in Great Britain in 2010 by
The Orion Publishing Group Ltd
Orion House
5 Upper Saint Martin’s Lane
London, WC2H 9EA
An Hachette UK Company
This eBook first published in 2010 by Gollancz.
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.
eISBN : 978 0 5750 8676 0
This eBook produced by Jouve, France
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor to be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
‘There can be no hearts above the snowline’
-Herman Melville
A stone rattled down the scree slope, bouncing and clacking, speeding up as it descended and dislodging further stones. It hit the side of a great boulder, ricocheted off and came to rest. Another followed it, tumbling past and sending up tiny puffs of the grey ground-rock dust that underlay the scree. Then a section of frost-shattered granite gave way under the boot sole of a Rhydanne girl. She was running down the steep slope with bounding strides and sliding crunches. She crossed the narrow stone chute diagonally, reached the larger slabs on its outside edge and turned to descend across it again. Behind and far above her, her husband was making his way down. She smiled, thinking: he never keeps up with me.
She rejoiced in her speed. She loved the exhilaration of being nearly, but not quite, out of control, revelling in the feeling of leaving her feet behind her; in the co-ordination of her long legs; in her ankles and knees jarring when she planted a foot into the scree and jumped again. She knew how to find footholds so precarious, thinking ahead with such fast instinct, her grace would put a chamois to shame.
She reached the bottom of the slope, a relatively flat terrace covered in gigantic, angular shards from cliff-falls and old avalanches. As the scree petered out onto grass she slowed to a halt and glanced back to see her husband still descending between the massive, uneven pillars of rock. In the distance his footfalls sounded tiny and high-pitched, as if the scree was broken glass.
She crouched and tightened the laces of her moccasin boots, then pulled a strip of wind-dried meat from her pack and began to chew it. She popped the bung from her waterskin and washed the sharp pieces down with neat whisky.
Her husband stopped beside her. ‘All right, Dellin?’
She nodded. ‘Hungry, though.’
‘I’m starving.’
She passed him one of the strips like stringy leather and as he munched it they pressed on, running in step between the boulders, picking their way with extraordinary rapidity. Dellin breathed deeply; the clean, cold air caught in her sinuses. Above the screes, the pure snowfields had taken on the dazzling blue of the early morning sky.
They ran along a natural balcony, a plateau below the soaring needles of rock, covered in rubble vivid green with lichen, which sheltered mosses and tiny mountain flowers. They were searching for ibex but there had been few sightings of any game above the tree line for weeks and they were becoming desperate.
‘Do you think there’ll be anything over in Caigeann?’ Dellin asked eventually.
Laochan bowed his head, meaning, the herders have left for the high pasture so there won’t be any goats.
‘Well, let’s follow them.’
‘If we get any hungrier we’ll have to. But it’s a long way and unless we eat first we might not be able.’
Dellin showed all her teeth in a smile that was more a grimace. She loved preying on the goats of those Rhydanne who lived as herders. She liked to swoop in, take what she wanted and run away pursued by the stupid, exasperated goatherds hurling stones.
Since the start of the melt season, the deer had become scarce and now the smaller prey also seemed frightened and elusive. Dellin and Laochan were not sure why, they hadn’t met any other hunters and the weather had been fair. But they knew that if they did not make a kill soon, they would starve.
Their pace matched exactly as they ran, sparse and concentrated. They even breathed together, leaving identical puffs of misted breath on the air. The rocks underfoot were no longer sealed together with ice and the footholds were treacherous, but Dellin jumped from one to the next, picking them out with perfect judgement, scarcely needing to think.
Rhydanne are to humans as cheetahs are to alley cats, as grey-hounds are to lapdogs, as hares are to rabbits and as falcons, the swift-winged cutters of the air, are to blackbirds whose predatory instinct extends only to worms and insects. They are lithe-limbed, cat-eyed and pale. They were human once, unlike the winged Awians, but millennia of evolution in the extreme mountains had adapted them to altitude and to the cold: it had keened their senses, honed their bodies and charged their speed. They are solitary, independent and, although they hunt in pairs, cannot even conceive of acting as a society. They are the ultimate hunters. They are also drunk nine tenths of the time.
A cliff top jutting out from the terrace formed a promontory and good lookout point. Dellin jogged onto it and gazed out over the contours of the slope. The mountainside curved away, pastel green and grey, but she could see no movement, no sign of deer. She leant on her spear for support, turned and looked back up-slope to where Carnich Glacier knuckled its way down from the high summits. Its spiny projections and rugged surface smoothed towards the snowfields. And far beyond them, a wall of jagged black pinnacles too sheer to hold snow cut against the sky.
The meltwater torrent leaving the glacier plunged into a deep ravine; even at this distance its roar made Dellin’s ears ring. It emerged much lower down in a series of waterfalls that seemed solid, like white veils, and poured into the top of a pine forest where it disappeared from view. Condors were sailing, broad-winged, over the topmost spires of the pines.
On the other side of the ravine, the balcony jutted out onto a great crag. Dellin cried, ‘Laochan! Look!’ The top of the crag was bare. It was below the tree line and should have been forest, but its flat summit had been stripped. Rocks were showing in the grey-yellow scar. She could just distinguish the trunks of the pines at the edge of the felled area. She squinted and discerned piles of lumber, looking no bigger than tinder spills. There were square mounds of stone there too, all larger than any trading post she knew, and penned in with fences and walls as if they were goats. ‘Someone’s cut all those trees down. And they’re building huge huts!’
Laochan tapped his spear butt on the rock apprehensively. ‘Could it be Karbhainn?’
‘Karbhainn couldn’t do that. It must be Awians.’
‘Awians. Featherbacks. They build, don’t they . . .?’
He tried to tell the huts from the rock. ‘It’s bigger than Scree pueblo . . . It’s like three pueblos joined together . . .’
‘On our hunting ground.’
They stood for some time, watching the bald promontory and the forest lapping up around it. Its cloak of pines descended unbroken into a thick cloudbank. Some gaps far out in the cumulus showed flatter ground and vague bistre and green shapes, framed by the cloud as if floating. There was nothing of interest down there.
She nudged Laochan and pointed. Some white boxes were emerging from the margin of the trees, on the Turbary Track. One by one they turned off the track and slowly crawled like ticks onto the top of the promontory, where they stopped in a line. ‘Wheeled sledges. They
flatlanders. Can you see any?’
He slitted his eyes against the breeze. ‘Amazing. Sledges never come up this far.’
‘Laochan! Trust your own eyes!’
‘Yes, I trust my eyes, but I trust my nose more. Can you smell burning?’
She stood breathing in the scents carried on the cool breeze: woodsmoke, pine resin, and something stronger, too, something she couldn’t identify. Faint noises came to her - stone being hammered and a man’s shout - cut short when the gust died down. ‘So much noise. No wonder the ibex are scarce.’
‘Ibex! They could wake a hibernating bear.’ He stared intently at the promontory, moving his head slightly from side to side, the way a hawk does when it focuses on prey. Dellin glanced at him, so he pointed out some brown blots on its summit, on a patch of sparse grass. ‘What are they? Deer?’
She shaded her eyes. ‘Horses. They’ll be horses. A larger type of mule.’
‘Why aren’t they running away?’
‘I don’t know.’ She gave him a fleeting look. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’
He licked his lips. ‘Think so!’
They turned and dashed back to the slope. They sped past outcrops of bulging rock onto a cliff and jumped down its ledges, using their spears to balance. Dellin’s nails rasped when she dug them, like pitons, into cracks. They descended through almost-sheer swathes of tough grass and bilberries. The ragged scatters of stunted pines at the tree line brushed their trousers. They raced between them and into the forest, among taller and taller pines until the great conifers blocked out the sky.

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