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The attack was swift, painful, and without warning. From behind and above, something huge swooped and stabbed her viciously behind her ear. She could feel the blood flow down her neck.

She retreated with a gasp back into the tunnel, supporting herself with her feet pressed against the side walls. She held the wad of seaweed against her wound but could feel the blood pulsing.

Immediately she understood what she was facing. Einar had made the climb in winter. The nest had been empty then. Now there must be new chicks. Yes. She listened and could hear the tiny squawking cries. Peering out, she could see the shadow of the parent gull, circling.

The neck of her shirt was wet with it, but the flow of blood gradually eased. Tentatively she lifted the homemade bandage. Good. The wound was only oozing. The sharp pain had subsided. She knew that she would be bruised and sore later, but that was not a concern now. Her urgent need was to figure out how to get past the nest, using its important handhold, and to the steplike rock protrusions that would be the means of her final ascent to the top.

After testing her legs and feet against the walls to be certain her perch was secure and she wouldn’t slip back down into the tunnel, Claire reached back into her pack and took out her water gourd. She drank deeply. Then she remembered the healing salves that Alys had placed in the bottom of the pack. If she returned the gourd, she wouldn’t be able to reach the medicine. But she had no place to put the water container. She shook it, and realized there was little water remaining. Finally, knowing there was a risk in this, she gulped the remaining liquid and dropped the empty gourd into the tunnel she had just climbed through. She could hear its single hollow thud against the wall as it fell, and then silence.

Now she was able to reach into the pack. First she removed her sandals, the laces of which were tied together. She hung them around her neck and removed the container of salve. It opened easily, and she smeared the healing paste thickly on her wound. She returned the small clay pot, and the wad of bloody seaweed, to the pack, which now dangled, near empty, from her shoulders.

She felt ready to try again. The shadow of the gull had stopped passing over the opening. She hoped it had soared to the sea and wouldn’t return until it had a beak full of fish for its young. She would be fast. She planned it in her mind. She would lean from the opening, throw herself across the steep rock, and make a quick grasp of the hold beneath the nest. From there she had only to pull herself across quickly and to find the first step on the other side. He had told her it was quite close. Easy to reach. She thought it through.

One. Move quickly out of the mouth of the tunnel.

Two. Reach with her left hand, arm stretched across the rock, under the nest and grab the handhold firmly.

Three. Push with her legs. Holding on with the one hand (how grateful she was now for all those months of arm strength exercises!), move across the cliff side. Feel with her toes for small ledges; they would help.

Four. Find the first step and reach for it with her right hand. Then she could move her left arm away from the nest and go beyond the place where the gull would see her as a threat.

Time to start. From her brief glimpse of the sky when she had tried to reach the nest before she was attacked, she guessed that it was now very late in the day. She must do this quickly. Once she passed this danger, the end was in sight and she could reach it before darkness.

Go!

Claire hoisted herself up until she was kneeling at the lip of the tunnel. She reached across with her left arm quickly, into the debris that formed the thick base of the nest. She found the knobby handhold there and grasped it. The squawking from the chicks became louder. They were frantic with fear.

Holding tightly with her left hand, feeling the strength in her arm, which would now briefly be her only support, she planted her feet firmly to push off and propel herself across the rock.

From the sky, its black wings folded tightly against it, the parent gull, summoned by its young, dove at her. She could see its pink legs folded against the white underparts, and the red spot at the tip of its razor-sharp yellow bill. But it was just a split second. The gull speared her arm, ripped at it, wrenched it loose from its hold. Claire screamed and fell back into the tunnel, instinctively using her feet once again to wedge herself against its walls.

She was bleeding badly. She could see the bone of her arm exposed by the huge gash the bird had made when it tore at her with its beak.

She leaned her head as low as possible and took deep, shuddering breaths. If she fainted, she would slide all the way back down the tunnel that it had taken her several hours to climb.

She would not allow herself to faint.

She would not allow herself to be killed by a bird.

It came to her what she must do.

She removed the container of salve again from her pack, opened it, and applied it thickly to the gaping slice in her flesh. She used the salve as a paste to compress the wadded seaweed against the wound. Still it bled. The little pot was empty now and she let it drop, hearing it fall as the water gourd had. She reached into the pack again and found nothing remaining there but the red-covered rock intended as a signal when she reached the top. She held it between her teeth while she used her knife to cut through the fabric of the pack itself and made a strip of the leather. Then she placed the flat rock over the seaweed and held it fast there with the leather strip wrapped tightly around her injured arm. She tested it, moving her arm in several ways, and the dressing stayed firm. Then she dropped the ruined pack down into the tunnel and it disappeared into the darkness.

Next she moved up to the top opening of the tunnel. The gull was circling, waiting. Claire ignored it. She uncoiled the rope that she had been carrying looped around her shoulder. She made a noose.

Then once again she planned what she was about to do. She did it in her mind, rehearsed it: this motion, then that. She knew she must be very, very fast. Another successful attack from the black-backed gull would bring about her death. She could not let that happen.

When she was ready, she thought: Now. She lifted her upper body from the tunnel lip, spun the noose, and let the rope fly. It was just a short distance, and her aim was accurate. She lassoed the nest, tightened the noose, and pulled. It was startlingly heavy for something made of twigs, seaweed, and grass. But it crumpled, folded upon itself, and she ripped it from the rock, flinging it outward into the air. She watched it, and the chicks, falling for a moment, and the enormous gull swooping toward it and shrieking.

Then she lifted herself, reached across, grabbed the now visible handhold with her uninjured arm, and pulled herself triumphantly across the cliff face and to the steps that would lead her to the top.

Sixteen

Claire lay panting upon the solid earth. It was dark now. The attack of the gull had consumed precious time, and when she reached the steps that would be the final climb, dusk had come. He had said “Don’t look down” because this very last section, although it was made relatively easy in its climb because of the odd outcroppings that formed footholds, was sheer in its vertical drop. It could have been terrifying to look down and realize the distance that a fall would be. To lose your grip out of terror after such a dangerous and difficult day, to fall at the very end of it—that was what Einar feared. But she rose and looked down now from the edge at the top and saw nothing but darkness. Above her, the sky was filled with stars.

She felt the wound on her neck. It was encrusted with dried blood and very sore, but she thought it was not a serious wound; she had seen worse on children who had tumbled on rocks. Her arm was a greater concern. Gingerly she untied the tight leather strip and let it fall away. The flat rock was stuck to the seaweed, and she pried it loose carefully. Its red covering had been meant as a sign that she was safe. She wondered if Einar would be able to see that it was stained with her blood as well. She held it to her lips briefly, trying to impart a message, a thank-you, a goodbye; then she threw it as hard as she could out into the night beyond the cliff.

She left the seaweed on the throbbing gash and retied the leather strip around it, using her teeth and her right hand. Then she put on her sandals. She was to wait here, Einar had said, for dawn. At dawn the man would come, a strange man wearing a black cloak. He was the one who would take her to her son. Einar did not know how. He only knew that the man had special powers. He came to people who needed help, and offered himself.

Claire was to say yes to the man. There would be a price. She must pay it, Einar said. There would be no choice. To decline the man would bring terrible punishment upon her. Einar knew. The man had approached him, assessed how desperately cold he was after the climb, seen that his toes were white with frostbite, and offered—for a price they would agree upon—to provide him with warmth, comfort, and transportation to whatever his destination might be. It was tempting. But Einar was both willful and proud. He had said no.

“I don’t need you,” he had said. “I’m strong. I climbed out alone.”

The man had offered again. “One more chance,” he said. “The price will be something you can afford, I assure you. A fair trade.” But Einar, suddenly mistrustful, had again said no. Without warning he had found himself on the ground, struck down and weakened by a mysterious power summoned by the man. He lay there unable to move, watching in horror while the man reached under his cloak, withdrew a gleaming hatchet, and chopped off half of his right foot. Then the left.

This was the person Claire was to wait for and say yes to.

She moved carefully away from the cliff’s edge, feeling her way in the dark to a mossy patch beside some bushes. She arranged herself there and fell into an exhausted sleep. When he came, it was morning, and she was still sleeping. He touched her arm and she woke.

“Exquisite eyes,” he said when she opened them. Claire blinked. She stared at him. He was not what she had expected. He was ordinary. Somehow she had thought he would be powerful in appearance. Large. Frightening. Instead, he was narrow-shouldered and thin, with a sallow complexion and neatly trimmed dark hair. And for such a desolate place—she looked around and saw nothing but a barren landscape—he was oddly dressed, in a fashion that was unfamiliar to her. Behind the cloak that Einar had described she could see that he wore a tightly fitted dark suit with sharp creases in the trousers. On his feet were highly polished shoes of a fine leather. There were gloves on his hands, not knitted gloves such as those she was accustomed to wearing in winter, or the coarse gloves that had helped her grip the rope as she climbed. The man’s black gloves were of a thin, silky fabric and molded to fit his slender fingers.

The gloved hands frightened her. He was reaching for her arm, and Claire didn’t want to be touched by those sinuous, silk-encased fingers. She shrank back and rubbed her eyes (“exquisite eyes”? What did that mean?), then rose without his help and stood.

He moved back slightly, facing her. Then he bowed, and his lipless mouth stretched into a mirthless smile. “Your name, I believe, is Claire,” he said. “And perhaps my presence comes as a surprise? Allow me—”

She interrupted him. “No. I was told you would be here.” She could tell that the interruption annoyed him. But she felt vulnerable and humiliated, standing there in her shredded clothing, bleeding from wounds and in need of his help. She wanted to assert herself in some way.

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