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The Atholl Expedition by Alex Roddie
The favourable weather lasted no longer than half a day.
Duncan sweated at the rear of the hunting party as they struggled up the southern flanks of yet another mountain. He had no clear idea where they were. For a few hours after dawn the sun had blazed down on them as it climbed into the heavens, and Duncan had tramped upwards, tormented by the heat, swatting midges out of his eyes and following the pony as she picked the most efficient path through the rocks. They had not lingered at the waterlogged bealach between the two mountains, for such places were blighted by a miasma of bad air that was known to cause disease.
The wind began to pick up after an hour, and by noon a veil of high cloud had completely obscured the sun. The humidity of their ascent soon turned to a dangerous chill. Every man in the party wore clothing dampened by the sweat of his exertion, and now the north wind stole body heat from them with every step.
Albert plodded grimly at his side. He hadn’t spoken for an hour or more. Duncan wondered what thoughts might be passing through the mind of the Prince in this wild and remote place. Did he miss his wife and family? Was he bent purely on his single-minded pursuit of the prize, or did his thoughts return to weighty matters of politics and state?
Suddenly they emerged at the most savage and breathtaking location Duncan had ever seen in these mountains.
They had been following a burn uphill for a while now. The waters were often hidden beneath masses of old snow as they flowed down a furrow in the mountain. The hunters trod cautiously over this sugary carapace, and Duncan followed his father’s footsteps, wary of concealed voids. Sometimes he could hear the water gurgling and foaming below his feet. The surface was so dirty and blown-over with grass and dust that it hardly looked like snow at all, but resembled the rocks to each side: a desolate expanse of grey, pock-marked and rippled like sand on a beach.
McAdie led their party to the source of this burn: a bealach between two mountain peaks. The wind blasted shreds of freezing mist through the notch, and in the gale Duncan could smell an imminent blizzard. An ache of foreboding settled in his bones as he approached that fearful place.
A boiling confusion of cloud hid the landscape here and there, first obscuring it completely then revealing it for a dazzling moment before covering it up once again. Duncan had never climbed this high before. To his mind this notch in the mountains was the very gateway into the hell belonging to the Bodach: a world forbidden to men, a kingdom of monsters and savage forces, of avalanches and death.
He raised a hand before his eyes to shield them from the terrible wind. Ahead, he could see no distinction between the snow on which he stood and the churning white of the sky. The ground trembled and groaned beneath his shoes. He raised his eyes to the mountain peak on the right: a vertical cliff, monstrous to his eyes, fringed by dripping icicles that reached down like claws into the abyss beneath.
His father stood on a rock, leaning over the edge, trying to penetrate the veil of cloud which filled the amphitheatre below. Duncan flailed through the snow in his direction.
‘Where are we?’
‘Stay back!’ McAdie warned. ‘There’s a barraman here. I cannae see the edge.’
Barraman: an overhanging ledge of snow, poised to fall into the depths and kill any who stand upon it. Such evil traps were constructed by the Bodach and had claimed many a victim over the years.
Duncan felt the first flakes of snow whipping past his face, carried on the strengthening northerly. August snow was common in the high mountains, but today, after such a fine sunrise, it was an evil omen.
‘We must climb down there.’ McAdie pointed into the whirling darkness beneath them.
Albert struggled to his feet. ‘Down there? Are you mad?’
‘If the hart wasnae in Glen Geusachan he’ll be in Garbh-coire for sure. This is our route down.’
McAdie took a step forward, sinking up to his ankles in the snow; then another step, and another, probing the ground ahead with the stock of his rifle. The fury of cloud blasting over the ridge obscured his outline so that he became little more than a wraith in a matter of seconds.
The landscape devoured him. Duncan turned to Albert, quaking inside but determined to make an outward show of confidence.
‘You heard my father. No time for resting until we’re in the corrie below.’
Albert nodded. The snow was beginning to stick to his moustache and he shivered in the cold. For a moment Duncan thought he detected fear in the great man’s expression, but with a stoic smile Albert banished his doubts.
‘I trust you. Lead the way.’
Duncan followed his father’s footsteps to the edge of the abyss.
The wind increased with every step he took, grasping at his sleeves, tearing at his face with pellets of ice, striving to push him back into the mortal world. The snow sapped the warmth from his feet and made it harder to ignore the fatigue which had built up over days of hard work and poor rest. Such conditions killed men regularly, and in truth Duncan was mortally afraid, for they were entering the realm of the mountain spirits where the boundary between life and death was as narrow as a thread.
A man is an atom here. We do not belong, and we survive only by the grace of fate.
A rotten fissure gaped in the snow at his feet. Clogged with debris blown in from the corrie beneath, natural forces had sculpted it into the most fantastic shapes imaginable: a frozen morass of twisted crests and sinkholes, cracks and waves. He stepped over this barrier with care.
Beyond it, his father had kicked a trench in the overhanging lip of snow. Snowflakes blasted through this gap into Duncan’s face, momentarily blinding him. Footsteps led down a slope of unremitting steepness on the other side: a clean sweep of a hundred yards, perhaps more, although much of the descent was hidden in the murk. He could see his father descending on all fours some way beneath, facing into the slope.
He turned back to address Albert. The Prince was coated in driven snow from his boots to the crown of his head, and he shielded his eyes with a hand as he staggered in the relentless wind.
‘Mind how ye go, sir,’ Duncan shouted at him. ‘It’s awful steep.’
‘The pony will never make it down here! This is madness!’
‘Trust her! She’s a better climber than any of us.’
The mountain roared as Duncan began his descent, and in that roar he heard the unearthly cry of the Bodach.
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About the author
Alex Roddie is a writer of historical fiction set in the mountains. He’s spent a great deal of his life up various hills, and his time living in Scotland from 2008 to 2011 has proved an endless source of inspiration. His novels The Only Genuine Jones and The Atholl Expedition are tales of adventure based on the emerging mountaineering culture of Britain in the 19th century.
His author website is www.alexroddie.com.
Alex is also a freelance editor providing affordable services for indie authors. When wearing his editing hat he hangs out at www.pinnacleeditorial.co.uk.