It was a relief when the ground began to feel more solid underfoot. The going was definitely easier, although they were now going steadily uphill. It was a long time before Jay noticed that the undergrowth was getting sparse, and that the trees, which had been mainly oak and birch with a pine or two every so often for most of their time in the woodland, were giving way to open pine forest. As the sky cleared above them and the sun warmed them, the trees began to give off their heady scent, a smell Jay loved. Now and again they had to go around huge rocks which were strewn among the pines as though a giant had been rolling them down the ever-increasing slope for amusement. The Dhole pack circled around, sniffing out the path, always some behind her as well as in front.
Jay's walk began to turn into a trudge, then into a breathless clamber as the slope grew steeper. The trees grew more and more sparsely, and from time to time she could make out a faint path ahead. The sun was high now, and the day would have been unbearably hot had it not been for a cool wind blowing into their faces as they climbed. Soon the trees were a green mist far below them, and when she turned to look behind her Jay could see for miles across the valley to more hills. At length the slope evened out a little, and they were making their way to and fro up the side of the mountain on a track which varied from scarily narrow to ledges wide enough for a good-sized road.
When they came to the third of these wide places and the dogs showed no sign of stopping, Jay sat down on the warm dry yellow grass in the shade of a large rock, took the pack off and refused to go any further. Gasping for breath, she said, “I can't go on. I've got to have a rest. I can hardly breathe, my feet hurt, and I want a drink. Please can we stop here? I really can't go on.”
The dogs, also panting, threw themselves down around her all except for the leader, who sniffed around the whole area right up to the cliffs behind them and out of sight around the curve of the path ahead before coming back and announcing, “Yesyes, this near nuff” “We stay here-a.”
“What do you mean, near enough? Near enough to what?” asked Jay, having put the dragon as deep into the back of her mind as it would go; but the dogs made no answer. They grinned and panted, shaking their red heads and pale round ears. She took her pack off and drank a long welcome draught from the flask. It was much the same as she had drunk while they were in the swampy woods, and she recognised its restorative power. It was at least as good as tea, thought Jay. When she had drunk her fill and had recovered a bit, she noticed that the dholes were huddled together, obviously conferring. Still exhausted, she watched them for a while. Her eyelids began to droop.
Before she had had a chance to fall fully asleep, they were all round her again, nestling up to her affectionately. She stretched, and yawned resignedly.
“Do we have to go on now?”
“Nono” “we go” “you staya” “this your place.”
Jay was appalled. “You can't leave me here! No, I won't stay! Why should I? I'll follow you! I can't stay here on my own!”
“Yes girl” “you gotta thinka” “you stay here-a” “stay tonighta”
“stay nother nighta” “two nighta you stay” “sunrise twice, you go” “you go meeta dragon.”
“We go now.”
Jay burst into tears, her resolutely forgotten fear of meeting the dragon swamped by her shock at the thought of being deserted by her friends. Each dog in turn stood right up on its back legs and put its paws briefly on her shoulders, resting a furry muzzle against her neck or cheek before it lined up with the others, right at the edge where the ground disappeared. Jay, ashamed of the tears running down her cheeks, was shaking with the attempt to keep in check her fear of being left alone. The leader was last, and looked into Jay's eyes as she spoke:
“You good girl, Jay.” There was a ragged chorus from the other dogs ahead:
“You good girl” “you frienda.” “We no like humans” “butta we like-a YOU!”
Then the leader put her cold nose close to Jay's ear and said quietly, without a trace of the jagged speech Jay had been used to:
“You not be afraid, Jay girl. You got troubles, yes, I see 'em. Troubles in your heart. Bitta fear good. Lotta fear hurt real bad. No use, no helpa. You getta chance, you look clear. You see for real, troubles go one day. Not fight pain, welcome, see true. You grow to be kind wise human female so, Jay. Remember!”
“I don't understand. Please don't go!” wept Jay, but as she spoke the leader edged round her to join the rest of the pack.
“Goodbye, frienda!” they chorused, and leapt into the clear, empty air.
Jay gave a horrified scream. She couldn't help herself. But as the dogs leapt, they changed: they grew smaller and black, grew feathers and flew away like a flock of crows. She watched them as they flew off into the distance, no longer yipping but cawing and screeching with joy as they wheeled and dipped, going further and further away from her until they could no longer be seen.
Jay sat down hard by the rock again, aghast at the flight of her companions, and sobbed desolately, shaking all over. She didn't understand why her friends had left, and she couldn't cope at all with the waves of unfamiliar emotions sweeping through her. She was quite unused to crying, and the thought that she was being a wimp didn't help her regain her composure at all. Finally, when she had cried herself out, she raised her aching head and looked around her.
The ledge was moderately flat and grassy here, scattered with small grey boulders, and about as wide as three lanes of a motorway. Here the dogs had told her to stay for two whole nights on her own, and the day in between. She had never been alone overnight, although she had once spent most of a day completely on her own. She dismissed that thought: it reminded her of the time when it first became obvious that Grace was ill, and she didn't, definitely did not want to think about that. But thoughts of Grace, and of home, kept coming back and wouldn't be denied.
She hugged her knees close to her for comfort and rested her head on them, looking around at the way she'd just come, and wishing she'd paid more attention to the journey up the mountain. Was there any firewood on the way up, or anything at all to burn for warmth? Had she seen any caves for shelter? She couldn't remember; she'd been looking at the view or watching her step where the path became tricky.
She turned her head to look the other way. To her right the ledge wandered on for a good way, narrowing as it went and getting steeper before disappearing round a corner. Jay wondered what a hundred metres looked like. Maybe she would try and work it out later when she had stopped shaking. Perhaps some food would help. The pack was already open, and she was grateful to her earlier self for putting the flask and packets just under the flap. Thirsty from so much crying, she took another few gulps from the flask. This time it wasn't wine but warm and fragrant and slightly fizzy. She opened one of the packets of food and gulped the contents down without even noticing the taste. After a while she had calmed down enough to accept, though reluctantly, that she was going to have to plan for her stay.
She got up and ambled carefully towards where the ground disappeared, but was scared by the way the grass just seemed to stop. She lay on her tummy, wriggled towards the edge and peered over. Sure enough, the ledge finished abruptly, with a long, precipitous drop which ended in a fall of shale. Pines and boulders masked the bottom of the shale slope; the steep angle of the treetops continued for a long way before the valley flattened out.
Wriggling backwards for a way before she felt safe enough to roll over and stand up, she looked to her left and right from a new vantage point, and up at the cliffs. There would be no climbing those, she decided, not even to gather wood, for she could see branches overhanging in places. This was hopeful, she thought, for it might mean firewood could have fallen or blown onto the ledge. Strewing the contents of her pack on the ground to empty it, she shrugged her shoulders into the straps and started off in search of fallen wood at once, wandering both ways along the ledge. Anything to stop herself getting upset again about her plight. She hadn't gone too far before she was finding and picking up plenty of firewood. She made several trips, sorting the wood into piles of different sizes as she remembered the dholes showing her, before she was satisfied that she had enough to last her through the night even if it became bitterly cold.
That brought her thoughts back sharply and painfully to the fact that she was alone, on the edge of a mountain, with no way of getting home.
As she was trying desperately to avoid getting stuck with being upset, she suddenly found herself thinking: why should she stay here? Maybe she would go off and find another way down the mountain. Not the way she'd come, of course: that would probably take her straight back to the dogs, and they'd bring her back to meet the dragon. She definitely did not want to meet the dragon, whatever the Dhole said. Maybe she was relieved to be rid of them, that was it, and now she was free to do as she pleased.
She put her pack on again and started resolutely up the path, in the direction the leader had taken earlier. As she rounded the first corner, the side of the ledge to her left, nearest the drop, began to rise up until Jay was on a steep stony path in a shallow gully. Gradually the path got narrower and narrower, until she was sidling along with her pack brushing against the sheer side of the cliff. Looking out across the broad view, she could see black clouds gathering. They were definitely heading this way. She began to feel anxious. Would the track widen to give her a way round the shoulder of the mountain, or would she have to go back the way she had come after all, miles and miles? She had just about made up her mind to turn around and go back to the place where the Dholes had left her, at least, when, without warning, her pack met empty space and she stumbled sideways into a tall, shallow cleft in the rock.