Some twenty hours later, having not long before assured Richard that they were nearing the end of the climb, Ellen had wedged the two of them into a crack in the cliff and was considering another cliff-borne problem she had forgotten about. She flexed her fingers; the pads at their tips were laced with small cuts. Richard’s fingers were worse, as were his muscles. She had been worried about him all day. Though his humour never slipped, his strength did, his overworked muscles simply refusing to function so that she and Rosa had to constantly brace to catch him and winch him up.
Ellen berated herself for the hundredth time for not thinking through the ins and outs of the climb before starting it – especially the fact that she climbed almost every day, but Richard rarely did. She’d said as much to him as they’d rested the previous night, or for what passed as an Antarctic night. He’d chuckled drily. “Ellen, the day you consider the consequences of climbing an insurmountable object is the day your long-suffering friends will throw a party to celebrate the event.”
She’d said that she’d probably also come to the party, drawing another chuckle from him.
“So how did you manage all of this last time you came?” Richard’s question had been slightly slurred with fatigue.
“It took about ten days to climb the cliffs. It took ages to find this route.”
“Ten days!” Richard had lifted the arm he’d had resting over his eyes and stared at her. “Ten days! How, in all honesty, did you survive for ten days on the Barrier Cliffs?”
Ellen had waved a hand at their surroundings, which last night was a shallow cave just roomy enough to prepare a meal, repack their bags with fresh provisions from Rosa’s saddlebags, perform minimal ablutions, doctor their blisters and cuts and, finally, lay out sleep mats and sleepsacks. “There’re quite a few places like this on the cliffs. I’d tuck into one and explore around till I found a way up. I wasn’t in a hurry so it was okay.”
“What did you eat?”
“Oh, the usual. I had stuff in the saddlebags and there are berries and things on the cliffs. Rosa would find them and bring them back to me.”
“Of course,” Richard had muttered, slumping back and resting his forearm over his eyes again. “How silly of me not to notice that there were comfortable bedchambers all over this ruinous rock. And how ridiculous of me not to notice the dining tables. I suppose Rosa is out there preparing a meal for us now, is she?”
Ellen had laughed. Surely there was never a gentler man born, she’d thought – perhaps Pedro.
Rosa had indeed been out hunting for food. She had watched her two human charges settle themselves in the cave and, when she was sure they were safe, had clambered her way to tasty morsels growing out of nooks and crannies, nibbling at leaves and berries and sometimes tearing out plants to chew on their fibrous roots.
A longer time to climb these cliffs would have been a better option, Ellen reflected. But she didn’t have a longer time: she could not trust her health for more than a few weeks at a time and there was much to show Richard on top of the Barrier Cliffs.
At least I remembered the route.
Except she had forgotten this last great hurdle: this shelf that now blocked their progress to the top of the Barrier Cliffs, even without the mist hazing out details.
“Mmmpf,” Ellen grunted at last. She reached into a trouser pocket and pulled out an energy bar as she first tipped her head back to inspect the shelf that jutted out over the top of them and then looked ahead to study the ravine before them. They needed to be on the other side of the ravine to climb the last part of the cliff; otherwise they needed to crawl upside down along the shelf to get to its lip and then pull themselves over. “I’d forgotten about this shelf and the ravine. Don’t know why, because it took me ages to work out how to get around it. Maybe that’s why I blocked it from my memory.”
“How did you get around it?”
Ellen sucked at the bar for some time without answering. Richard followed suit, chewing on his snack.
“Okay,” she said at last. “Unless you’ve got a better suggestion, this is what I think we’ve got to do. I’ll get Rosa to fly over ―”
Rosa, who was spread over the cliff some distance below, interrupted with a sudden excited chirruping. She was so excited that she lost her grip and sent rocks and dust skittering from beneath scrabbling feet as she grabbed again for purchase.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish