Urban Fantasy author Helen Harper found international success with her series Blood Destiny. In January, Harper released the new Highland Magic series and her first book, Gifted Thief, has rave reviews on Amazon. Last week, the second book in the series, Honour Bound, was released and we’re excited to be able to offer the first chapter as an excerpt! Read on and don’t miss out on this awesome new series from Harper.
Old habits die hard. It wasn’t entirely my fault though; if the Sidhe from the Clan Carnegie hadn’t been quite so brash about flashing his wealth on the street I’d have left him alone. But when he stepped out of his chauffeur-driven, brick-red SUV, summarily pushing an elder Clan-less pixie out of the way and into a dirty puddle, then made an ostentatious show of adjusting his cuffs so we could all see his gleaming over-priced Rolex, I couldn’t resist. I’d only popped out for a pint of milk but this seemed far more exciting than another conversation with the human who ran the small corner shop at the end of my road.
In the Highlands of Scotland, you were either Clan or Clan-less. The Clans were run by the Sidhe but other individuals could swear fealty and enlist. In return they received a modest wage, a degree of protection from all the ills the world had to offer, and long hours working at whatever the Clan deemed necessary. Not everyone wanted to become a Sidhe slave though. Avoid the Clans and you were left to scrub out an earning on the cold, hard streets. Neither option was perfect. I might have been the only Clan-less Sidhe in the entire country but until recently I’d always been proud to call myself Clan-less. We might be the bottom of the rung but at least we were free.
I tracked the pompous Carnegie Sidhe along Oban’s main street and down towards the harbour. He strutted along like he owned the place. It didn’t help his cause that he had a skinny Bauchan, a sort of Scottish hobgoblin, trailing after him with an umbrella to protect his precious Sidhe skin from the unrelenting sleet. He paused in front of a rusty boat, jerking his head imperiously at the pale-faced sailors visible on the deck. Whatever cargo he was here to inspect, it had to be valuable for him to bother making this trip.
It might have been January but spring was still a long way off. Still, even wealthy Sidhe like him couldn’t order deliveries from across the Veil. For the last three hundred years, the Fomori demons had ruled the Scottish Lowlands from the other side of the magical barrier called the Veil. Unless you wanted to risk being torn apart limb by limb by a horde of murderous evil-doers, you couldn’t go through the Veil and you couldn’t fly over it. If you wanted something delivered from the rest of the world, you had to bring it by sea or get a plane to go the long way round.
The sailors hastily threw down the gangplank. I suspected that it wouldn’t matter how quickly they opened up access for him, he would still have that lemon-sucking expression on his face. The high-born Sidhe nobles had been in their positions for too long to expect anything other than the smoothest and most immediate service. Maybe his attitude wasn’t his fault; after all, he had been conditioned through generations to act that way.
He marched up, his foot catching on a patch of ice. I had to bite my tongue to stop from laughing aloud as his arms flailed dramatically and he tried to stop himself from pitching over into the dark, freezing waters below. The Bauchan, who’d remained behind on the dock, lunged upwards while the sailors darted down. The Sidhe was caught just in time, several pairs of arms steadying his body before helping him up the rest of the way. Shame.
I cast around. There was a Clan Haig tugboat nearby, its familiar blue tartan flying from the mast. I stepped back and eyed it. The distance to the Carnegie ship wasn’t so great; I could bypass the waiting Bauchan by leaping from one deck to the other. The Carnegie sailors would be so distracted by the noble’s visit that they probably wouldn’t even notice me. I grinned to myself.
‘Did you hear about what happened when the blue ship and the red ship collided?’ I said to the wind. ‘Both crews were marooned.’
As if in response, a stronger gust whirled round me, catching my white hair and blowing it round my head. It was usually a colour that made me stand out in a crowd but in greyer-than-grey weather like this, it was almost perfect camouflage.
Shoving my hands in my pockets and whistling, I wandered over to the Haig tugboat. It appeared deserted. With a quick look over my shoulder, I jumped up, caught hold of one of the ropes that tethered it to the dock and hoisted myself up. Keeping low, I crept along the smooth deck until I reached the starboard side. My brow furrowed. Somehow, from this angle, the distance to the Carnegie vessel looked greater.
The sailors, most of whom appeared to be mermen, were making a great show of looking busy. Keep at it, boys. I waited until most of their backs were turned then, inhaling deeply, threw myself forward, legs and arms akimbo. My fingers only just caught the edge of a porthole and my body slammed into the side of the ship a moment later. There was a heavy clunk which had my insides stiffening in alarm. I hung there for several seconds, trying to keep my grip secure. I hadn’t expected the porthole to be so slimy, which in hindsight was remarkably stupid of me, and it wasn’t easy to cling on. Eventually a few shouts carried over by the helpful wind reached my ears. The sailors’ attention was focused on the other side of the ship. I didn’t need to worry.
The ship’s hull might have been slippery but it was also obviously used to far deeper waters than these. There were enough barnacles which, if I didn’t allow my toes to linger on them for too long, could provide the grip I required. I craned my neck to judge my route then, knowing I wouldn’t be able to hang onto the rim of the porthole for much longer, leapt up. The second I hit the deck I rolled, using the steel containers crammed along the side to conceal myself from alert eyes. The ship heaved in the water. It was no wonder I usually chose to stick to dry land; even within the safety of the harbour, the waves were enough to make my stomach rise into my throat.
I pressed myself against the container’s side, not just to keep myself from being spotted but also because it was reassuringly solid. Edging along, I peered round the corner. There was an open door leading into the blackness of the ship’s hold.
I was in unknown territory. Under normal circumstances I sneaked into buildings, and modern architectural design, especially when it came to interiors, tended to be much of a muchness. Even without floor plans, it didn’t take much common sense to understand layouts and locations. But, beyond the fact that icebergs were to be avoided at all costs, I knew next to nothing about ships. Perhaps if I just wandered in yelling ‘Ahoy me hearties!’ I’d be alright.
Before I could dart inside, the Sidhe noble reappeared. He had a long thin nose, which spoke of some ancient Roman heritage, and piercing eyes. I didn’t recognise him so he wasn’t the Carnegie Clan Chieftain, despite his regal bearing.
‘It all needs to go to the Cruaich immediately,’ he said in a cultured tone, referring to the seat of Sidhe power where duplicitous Aifric Moncrieffe ruled as Steward.
One of the mermen cleared his throat. ‘There’s been a heavy snowfall…’
‘I don’t care,’ the Sidhe snapped. ‘We can’t afford prying eyes seeing what we have.’
A tiny smile played around my mouth. So this was all supposed to be a great big secret? Even better. If his precious cargo was too large for me to spirit away, I could simply take a few photos and post them around for all to see. His big secret, whatever it was, would be exposed to the world and I’d win either way. Since I’d turned my back on the world of thievery, I had to get my kicks where I could.
The merman bowed, although it didn’t take a genius to notice that he was more than slightly piqued by the command. All mermen, my friend and erstwhile colleague Brochan included, had a line of small fins running down the length of their spines. Usually this was covered by specially designed clothing which reached up to the nape. This sailor was wearing a low, crew-cut T-shirt so his first few fins were on display and, even from my hiding place, I saw them bristle and tighten. But it didn’t matter how irked he was, he wasn’t about to deny the Carnegie lordling. That meant the Sidhe probably possessed one of the more volatile magic Gifts – and wasn’t afraid to use it against less magically inclined beings. One of the reasons that the Sidhe held the powerful position that they did was as a result of their Gifts – anything from pyrokinesis to telepathy. Most Sidhe only had one; a lucky few could boast of two or even three. My situation was a lot more complicated. I still wasn’t sure what I had – or whether I even wanted it.
I waited until the Sidhe started to leave. He was more careful this time and took his time stepping onto the gangplank. While the sailors watched him, no doubt keeping their fingers crossed that he would slip and fall, I took advantage of their distraction to fly out from behind the container and duck into the doorway.
This was no pretty wooden boat like the Clan Haig tugboat. It was a working ship, not a pleasure boat, and I was surrounded by steel plates and rusting rivets. That meant I’d have to be careful to keep quiet. Metal conducted sound almost as well as it conducted heat.
Oddly, the strong tang of salt from the sea seemed stronger inside the hold than outside. I tiptoed gingerly down the corridor, ignoring the girly pin-ups from old magazines which had been fixed haphazardly to the walls. Half-naked merwomen just didn’t do it for me.
I sneaked past several rooms, ranging from a galley kitchen to an officers’ mess. I might not know much about ships but I was betting that the cargo the Carnegie Sidhe was so concerned about would be kept down in the bowels of the ship.
The further in I went, the more the vessel seemed to be alive. It creaked and groaned like an old man getting out of bed. I skirted to my right, avoiding the murmur of voices from the other direction, and let out a sigh of relief when I spotted some narrow stairs leading downwards. Bracing my hands on either side of the walls, I crept down, aware of every sound around me – not least the tiny, yet very audible, clank of my footsteps.
The area below was well lit with fluorescent lights hanging from the steel ceiling which gave off a harsh glow. It was also surprisingly tidy. I glanced at the first huge pallet; I couldn’t tell exactly what was inside but it looked like sections of black, smoky plate glass. Certainly it contained nothing worth stealing – or nothing worth a Sidhe getting their knickers in a twist about. I shrugged and kept going, passing crate after crate filled with similar material. It was only when I heard the rattle from ahead that I paused. That was … interesting.
More wary now, I pushed on. The rattle sounded again. I rounded another pallet, spotted a large cage and halted immediately. Was there an animal inside? Or something worse?
I strained my eyes to make out what was in there. The cage seemed empty but it was in a prominent position, with a clear space around it. That signified its importance; this was more than just an empty cage ‒ and it was also worryingly large.
Just as I was about to take another step, there was a cough behind me. ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ said a dry voice.
I whirled round. It was a rare day when someone managed to sneak up on me. Deciding to brazen it out, I shook out my hair and tilted up my chin. ‘Why not?’
A merman stepped out from behind one of the pallets. ‘She doesn’t like strangers.’
Tension knotted across my spine. She? I licked my lips. ‘Lord Carnegie asked me to…’
Before I could finish my sentence, the merman boomed out a laugh. It reverberated around the hold and bounced off the steel walls. ‘You’re no Carnegie Sidhe.’
‘Maybe not,’ I said softly, ‘but I am Sidhe.’ Usually that detail was enough to prevent further questions.
‘I know exactly who you are.’
Uh-oh. That wasn’t good. I thought quickly. The sailors above deck had been terrified of the Carnegie lord so maybe I could use that to my advantage. Right now, the merman was blocking my exit and, lithe as I was, I didn’t think I’d make it back up that narrow staircase without him grabbing me. I’d have to continue down the intimidation route, distasteful as it might be.
‘Then you know what I’m capable of,’ I said clearly.
The merman folded his arms. ‘Bad jokes and safe cracking?’ He smirked. ‘Because if you crack that safe, Integrity, you’re not going to get out of here alive.’
I blinked, taken aback. He really did know who I was. ‘How do you…?’
‘I have a cousin,’ he said. ‘A sea-fearing idiot of a cousin. Instead of enjoying all that the ocean has to offer, he lurks around cities stealing shit.’ He snorted. ‘Landlubber.’
My shoulders sagged in relief. ‘Brochan.’
The merman inclined his head. ‘Just so.’ He regarded me for a moment. ‘We don’t tend to talk about him. His parents aren’t exactly proud that their firstborn is thalassophobic.’
Afraid of the sea. I had to admit it was certainly an unusual – and not particularly welcome ‒ trait in a merman. But Brochan was also my friend. ‘He’s far more capable than most. He might have turned his back on the ocean blue but he doesn’t have to kneel to a Clan and he doesn’t have to worry about getting wrinkly fingers from spending too much time in the water.’ I raised my eyebrows pointedly.
The merman grinned. ‘Indeed. We meet up from time to time. He likes you a lot. He’ll be pleased to know that you’re sticking up for him.’
‘He doesn’t need me to stick up for him. He can fight his own battles.’
He took no offence at my sniffy comment. ‘Just so. I’m Jimmy, by the way.’
I inclined my head in wary greeting and watched him for a moment. ‘So what’s in the cage?’ I asked finally.
‘Nothing you’d want to nick.’
I smiled. ‘Come on, Jimmy. We’re practically family.’
He laughed wheezily. ‘Good one. The day I’m practically family with a Sidhe is the day my parents disown me too.’
I frowned. He already knew that I wasn’t like other Sidhe. Surely he could grant me a little leeway. ‘Tell me what’s in the cage,’ I coaxed.
He was still amused. ‘If you really want to know…’ He raised his head and whistled. There was another rattle, followed by a hiss. I turned to see a creature out of my worst nightmares drop down from the roof of the cage.
‘We call her Debbie,’ Jimmy said.
I stared at the giant spider. Her glittering eyes were fixed on me and she was the size of a horse. One long hairy leg tapped impatiently on the steel floor. I swallowed, taking in the expanse of her rounded belly. I hoped its size meant she’d just eaten because, frankly, I’d never seen anything so terrifying. ‘Why the hell does the Carnegie Clan want a giant spider?’ I whispered, more to myself than to Jimmy.
‘Why do the Clans want anything?’ He shrugged. ‘All I know is we need to get this darling up to the Cruaich without anyone seeing.’ He wagged a finger in my direction. ‘Without any Sidhe seeing.’
Was the Carnegie Clan planning some kind of assault on the Cruaich? I shook my head. It didn’t make sense. As far as I knew, the Carnegies were in a good position but they certainly weren’t strong enough to challenge Aifric of the Moncrieffe Clan for Stewardship. He’d been the leader of the Sidhe Clans since before I was born after all. I couldn’t think of any other reason why this thing was here, though.
As if sensing my thoughts, Debbie gave another rattle and scuttled towards me. I squeaked and jumped backwards.
Jimmy laughed. ‘Relax. She’s a sweetie really.’
My mouth was dry. ‘Really.’
‘You just need to get to know her.’ He stepped past me and up to the bars. I watched horror-struck as he put one hand into the cage. Debbie drew up as if she were preparing to strike – until Jimmy started scratching her under her chin. She let out an unmistakable hiss of delight. Okay then.
‘As I said,’ Jimmy continued, ‘she doesn’t like strangers. But she’s alright, she doesn’t kill mermen.’ He threw me a sidelong look. ‘We’re too salty.’
I took another step back, just to be on the safe side.
Jimmy grinned and pointed at the vicious-looking pincers protruding from either side of her gigantic mouth. ‘Watch out for them. One shot of that poison and you’ll be paralysed for a week. Debbie likes taking her time over her meals. It would be a long week.’
I tried to smile back but I only managed a grimace. ‘Yeah. She’s a real sweetie.’
The pager clipped to my belt began to buzz. Jimmy glanced at me. ‘You seem to be vibrating.’ He pulled his arm out of the cage. Debbie stared at him for a moment, waiting to see if this was merely a momentary lapse of concentration. When no further caresses came her way, she sprang up and twisted in the air until she was hanging from the roof of the cage once more.
I took out my phone, ready to snap a quick photo. Jimmy shook his head. ‘Can’t let you do that. If Carnegie finds out someone saw her, he’ll stuff my gills with cotton wool.’
It took some effort to push that image out of my mind. ‘So you won’t tell him I was here?’
‘Nah. But no photographic evidence. I don’t trust technology.’
He didn’t trust a mobile phone but he was happy to thrust his hand out in the direction of a giant flesh-eating spider? Brochan was obviously the only sane one in the family – and that was saying something.
‘Okay,’ I conceded. I still didn’t understand why the Carnegies were so keen to take this hairy monstrosity to the seat of Sidhe power but I certainly wasn’t going to steal her from them. My pager buzzed again. ‘I have to go.’
Jimmy shrugged. ‘Okay. Tell that dry-footed freak I said hi.’
I backed away, keeping my eyes on Debbie the entire time. She’d already dismissed me but I wasn’t about to turn my back on her – cage or no cage. ‘Will do.’ As soon as I reached the stairs, I turned and ran out of there like hell itself was on my heels.
I made it to the mountain rescue centre with seconds to spare. Travis, the gruff leader of our rescue team, shot me a look as I jogged up.
I checked my watch. Any rescuers on call had to show up within thirty minutes of their pagers sounding otherwise the team would leave without them. ‘Sorry,’ I called. I was within the limit – just – but it was clear the others had been waiting for me.
Travis merely nodded. If I’d been anyone else, he’d probably have chewed them out for taking so long to appear but he was too nervous of me to say anything to my face. Much as he appreciated my skills in picking up the injured and foolish from the surrounding mountains, he still found it hard to accept that he was working alongside a Sidhe. I had the impression that he was expecting me to demand everyone’s fealty at any moment. It didn’t matter that I’d explained a million times that I was Clan-less. In fact, when I said I was Clan-less because my father had been the Chieftain of Clan Adair, things got worse. Considering the world believed that my father had committed genocide against his own people and destroyed Clan Adair in one single afternoon over twenty-five years ago, that wasn’t hugely surprising.
I’d also believed those stories until recently. I still wasn’t sure what had happened to my parents but a vision I’d received in the sacred grove at the Cruaich told me that my father wasn’t the murderer everyone thought he was. And I was betting that Aifric Moncrieffe had something to do with it. After all, the Sidhe Steward had tried to kill me by handing me a bottle of water laced with poison. That’d make even a damn sheep suspicious.
‘No problem,’ Travis grunted.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said again.
He waved his hand as if it didn’t matter. It’d be nice if he stopped tiptoeing round me; I wasn’t anything special and I wished he understood that.
Words wouldn’t help me though so I offered him a shiny smile before turning my back and hopping into the helicopter. The others – a brother and sister team of humans called Tim and Tam, and Isla, a Nicnevan witch attached to the Polwarth Clan, gave me a more enthusiastic greeting.
‘Hey, Tegs. Travis giving you a hard time?’
‘If only,’ I said cheerfully, shrugging into my gear as the helicopter took off. Of course, it was all hot pink; I was rather passionate about that colour. As long as I could be identified against the winter snow and ice, the colours I chose to wear were up to me. Unfortunately I’d not had much success in persuading everyone else to don hot pink as well. That was a shame, it would rather suit Travis.
‘So what’s the deal?’ I asked, shouting over the noise of the rotors.
‘Husband and wife team,’ Tam yelled back. ‘Went out this morning to Aladdin’s Mirror and were supposed to check back in after midday.’
I tied back my hair, tucking it safely out of the way, and frowned. It was already four o’clock and at this time of year, it’d be dark within the hour. Four hours might not sound like a long time to go missing but in the Scottish Highlands in the depths of winter, it could be a lifetime. Or two.
‘Everyone goes to the Mirror,’ Isla said, rolling her eyes.
She had a point; this would be my fourth rescue there this year. Considering the Mirror was little more than a wall of ice, I didn’t understand the attraction. I reckoned it was the allure of the name as much as anything else. Names, as every Sidhe knew, had power. Aladdin’s Mirror did indeed sound rather mystical. It wasn’t; it was just a wall of frozen water that claimed far more broken bones and call-outs than should be allowed.
I was the newbie on the team but after four months I had a pretty good handle on how things worked. While I couldn’t ever imagine this job becoming mundane, the longer I spent at it, the more confident I grew. I knew what to expect.
The helicopter couldn’t fly directly to the Mirror so it put us lower down Coire an t’Sneachda. Try saying that ten times in a row; I might be getting better at these rescues but my tongue still fumbled with the different pronunciations of the locations.
Isla threw me an arch look. ‘Where are we going, Integrity?’
I stuck my tongue out at her and she laughed. I tried to concentrate. I could always get the first part right but stumbled at the end when the spelling had virtually no bearing on the way the name was pronounced. ‘Um, Kor In Tray…’
‘Korin Tray Achk.’
I repeated it under my breath. It wouldn’t matter; next time we made it up here, I’d have forgotten again. Gaelic just wasn’t my thing. Whatever ‒ I couldn’t be brilliant at everything.
The sky was already darkening when we jumped out. It was the time of year when you’d miss sunset if you blinked: one minute it was day and the next it was as if someone had flipped a switch and night had descended, even though it still wasn’t teatime. Travis frowned upwards, clearly unhappy at Mother Nature. The wind was picking up, sending tiny particles of ice and snow flying against our bare faces. It wasn’t just in heists that balaclavas were useful. I pulled mine over my head while the others did the same. Before my eyelashes could freeze, I yanked down my goggles. Thank goodness for hardy climbing equipment.
Once we were ready, Travis held up his index finger and circled it in the air. We all nodded. We knew what to do.
Travis led the way. As the greenie, I was directly behind him carrying the first-aid equipment. Tim and Tam followed behind with the stretchers, while Isla took up the rear. It was slow going. Even with our state-of-the-art gear, there was only so fast we could move when we were laden with stuff and walking on an uphill ice-skating rink. For a long time all that could be heard were our combined breaths and the crunch of snow beneath our feet. I was as fit as anyone and I was already sweating under my layers of clothing. I kept my head down. With visibility almost at zero, there was no point in looking at anything other than my feet. That was why I spotted the tracks.
I reached out and tapped Travis on the shoulder, causing him to halt. He turned, followed my finger and glanced down. The falling snow would cover them within minutes but there was no mistaking what was there. I had never seen signs of animal life this far up the mountain; at this time of year any beast smart enough to survive was much further down the slopes. From what I could tell, this brave creature had three legs ‒ something else which didn’t make sense.
Travis frowned, crouched down and lightly touched them. They weren’t large: each paw print was less than an inch in diameter. At least that was something: if a mountain beast was watching us from behind a snow-covered rock, it would be unlikely to attack five people who were a hundred times its size.
‘What are the tracks from?’ I asked.
Tim peered over my shoulder. ‘Bird?’
‘With three legs?’
He shrugged. ‘Maybe its tail is broken and it’s dangling down in the snow as it walks.’
We shared a glance. It was a nice theory but it was clearly wrong. This was no bird – but at least I was sure it wasn’t a damned giant spider either.
Travis straightened. ‘Whatever it is, we don’t have time to worry about it.’
There was the sudden, unmistakable sound of a flare being set off further up. It rocketed into the dark sky, a plume of red shooting a path of pain.
‘Well,’ Tim murmured, ‘one of them is still alive.’
We picked up our pace. Travis began jogging and the rest of us fell into line after him. As we rounded the last craggy outcrop, Aladdin’s Mirror loomed in front of us. With the sky as dark as it was, it was difficult to see much of it but we weren’t here for sightseeing ‒ the whimper from the foot of the Mirror confirmed that.
Travis strode forward. He was almost as sure-footed as a fey Sidhe. He reached a shadowy lump just ahead of us and dropped to his knees. ‘My name is Travis,’ he said calmly, in a manner designed to put injured climbers at ease. ‘Are you Maggie?’
‘Y–yes. Maggie Moncrieffe.’
I stiffened. No-one had mentioned that we were here to rescue a Sidhe, let alone one from Aifric and Byron’s Clan. At the thought of Byron Moncrieffe, Aifric’s son, my stomach tightened. I pushed away the image of golden boy’s handsome face which had popped unprompted into my head. It didn’t matter who these people were; they still needed rescuing.
Tim and Tam pushed past me, already assembling the stretcher.
‘You alright?’ Isla asked me.
I shook myself. ‘Fine,’ I muttered.
Travis ran his hands over Maggie’s body. ‘Where does it hurt?’
‘My ankle,’ she gasped. ‘I think it’s broken.’ She yelped as his fingers touched it gently.
‘Okay,’ Travis soothed. ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get you onto the stretcher and down from here. You’ll be back home in no time.’
That was all very well but she was alone. I hooked my backpack off my shoulder, pulled out a splint and bandages and glanced at Isla. ‘Isn’t there a husband?’
She nodded. I knelt down beside Travis and started binding Maggie’s ankle so that she could make the journey back down without further damage. ‘Maggie,’ I said softly, ‘where’s your husband?’
She moaned in pain. As her pupils were dilated and she was clearly drifting into unconsciousness, I had the uncomfortable feeling that she was suffering from far more than a broken bone. I reached for Travis and gripped his forearm, jerking my chin at her. He gave me a grim look of acknowledgement. We had to get her to a hospital fast.
‘Maggie,’ I said again. ‘I need you to look at me. Where’s your husband? He was here with you.’
Her pulse fluttered rapidly in her neck and her skin was hot to the touch but she was as tough as the other Moncrieffes I knew. Her eyes met mine and she managed a weak whisper. ‘He went for help.’
Shite. We’d not passed any tracks other than those belonging to the strange, unidentified animal. He must have wandered off in the wrong direction. It didn’t matter how often we instructed hikers and climbers to stay together when there was a problem; someone always thought they knew better.
‘What’s his Gift?’ I asked. If he were Sidhe he might be able to call up magic which would help him survive, otherwise he might well be lost for good. Unfortunately Maggie had given us all she could; she’d already closed her eyes.
I stood up. ‘You need to get her to a hospital now. She’s probably bleeding internally from the fall.’ I looked up at the sheer ice wall of Aladdin’s Mirror. If I squinted, I could make out an ice pick buried about twenty feet up. There weren’t any ropes, though. No wonder she’d landed so badly. Daft bint.
Travis nodded. While Tim and Tam carefully laid her onto the stretcher, he pressed a button on his walkie-talkie and called the helicopter to arrange the rendezvous.
‘There,’ Isla said, pointing to our right. ‘There are footsteps.’
The continuing snow flurries were already starting to cover them. ‘I’ll go after him,’ I said.
‘You can’t go on your own, it’s too dangerous.’
Travis looked at the pair of us. ‘You’ve got fifteen minutes. It’ll take us longer to get back down to the landing point anyway.’
I licked my lips; they were already dry and cracked. ‘And if we don’t find him?’
‘Then we’ll take Maggie to the town and come back later.’
I nodded, although that didn’t sound like a brilliant plan. Judging by the state of the weather, things weren’t going to improve any time soon. I was no snow expert but I could tell that the wind was getting stronger. Dangerously so. If this got much worse, the helicopter wouldn’t be able to fly, let alone drop us back here. I caught a look in Travis’s eye before he turned away; he knew it too. If we didn’t find Maggie’s husband and get him to the helicopter soon, we’d be forced to abandon him for the night. And he probably wouldn’t make it if that happened.
‘We’d better get a move on,’ Isla murmured.
‘Fifteen minutes,’ Travis repeated. ‘I mean it. This isn’t the night for silly heroics.’ He looked at me as he said those last words. That wasn’t entirely fair; I’d followed his instructions and commands to the letter over the last four months. Still, I nodded in acknowledgment and Isla and I took off.
The footsteps were close together, suggesting that Maggie’s husband had been moving slowly. That was good, it meant we had a better shot of catching up to him. I followed Isla’s lead, keeping my own steps light and brisk. I counted silently in my head to keep track of the time. Realistically we couldn’t follow his trail for more than eight or nine minutes before we’d have to return.
Time was not our friend and neither was the Coire an t’Sneachda. Even with the crampons I was wearing, my feet struggled to find purchase. Isla wasn’t much better and we slipped and slid our way along. As more of the snow gave way to hard ice, the trail disappeared until we were surrounded by howling winds, lethal rocks and very little else.
‘Which way?’ I shouted to make my voice heard above the growing gale.
Isla looked around. ‘I don’t know. We have to go back. He could be anywhere, he could be miles anyway.’
Bugger it. Moncrieffe or not, we weren’t going to leave him if I could help it. I unzipped the pocket on my thigh. There was always Bob, the genie who’d saddled himself to my side.
Before I could pull out the scimitar – or rather letter opener as it actually was – the wind abruptly changed direction. Unprepared as I was, it yanked me off my feet, flinging me to the ground. I yelled in frustration and tried to pull myself to my feet. As I did, I caught sight of the crevasse to my left.
I rolled over and peered down. There, wedged against another snow-covered rock, was a body. I couldn’t tell from here whether he was alive or dead but he certainly wasn’t moving.
She understood immediately and joined me at the rim of the crevasse. ‘Arse,’ she muttered. ‘He’s too far down.’
‘We can get him.’
‘Not without going in after him.’
‘Grab my feet.’
I couldn’t see Isla’s face because of her balaclava and goggles but I knew what her expression would be. I gave her a nudge. She muttered another curse and hunkered down as I unwound the rope I always carried on these rescues. ‘How much time do we have?’
I gritted my teeth; I’d just have to work faster. Isla’s hands curled round my ankles and I stretched out. At least the crevasse provided some shelter from the wind that was whipping around us. I pushed my body out as far as I could. My gloves made my fingers clumsy but I managed to snake the end of the rope round the body, tying a knot to hold it in place.
‘Integrity!’ I heard Isla scream. ‘I can’t hold on for much longer.’
‘I’ve just about got him,’ I shouted back. I checked the knot. It would hold. Hopefully. ‘Okay, pull me up.’
Isla wasted no time. She heaved and pulled until, slowly, I returned to safer ground. She must have been exhausted but she still took the other end of the rope and, with both of us using all our strength, we jerked it backwards. My feet slipped on the ice but I managed not to fall. Inch by inch, we strained to bring him up. When he was almost at the lip, Isla tapped my shoulder and I nodded, darting forward to pull him up the rest of the way.
‘You’d better be alive, buster,’ I told him, as I rolled his body to safety and checked for vital signs. I leaned towards his face, peeling up my balaclava until I could feel warm breath on my cheek. He was still with us ‒ for now at least.
‘We’re out of time, Integrity,’ Isla said urgently. ‘We have to go.’
‘Then let’s get out of here,’ I told her with a dark grin.