The days following Pie and Gentle’s second departure from Beatrix seemed to shorten as they climbed, supporting the suspicion that the nights in the Jokalaylau were longer than those in the lowlands. It was impossible to confirm that this was so, because their two timekeepers—Gentle’s beard and Pie’s bowels—became increasingly unreliable as they climbed, the former because Gentle ceased to shave, the latter because the travelers’ desire to eat, and thus their need to defecate, dwindled the higher they went. Far from inspiring appetite, the rarefied air became a feast in itself, and they traveled for hour upon hour without their thoughts once turning to physical need. They had each other’s company, of course, to keep them from completely forgetting their bodies and their purpose, but more reliable still were the beasts on whose shaggy backs they rode. When the doeki grew hungry they simply stopped, and would not be bullied or coaxed into moving from whatever bush or piece of pasture they’d found until they were sated. At first, this was an irritation, and the riders cursed as they slipped from their saddles on such occasions, knowing they had an idling hour ahead while the animals grazed. But as the days passed and the air grew thinner, they came to depend upon the rhythm of the doekis’ digestive tracts and made such stopping places mealtimes for themselves.
It soon became apparent that Pie’s calculations as to the length of this journey had been hopelessly optimistic. The only part of the mystif’s predictions that experience was confirming was the hardship. Even before they reached the snow line, both riders and mounts were showing signs of fatigue, and the track they were following became less visible by the mile as the soft earth chilled and froze, refusing the traces of those who had preceded them. With the prospect of snowfields and glaciers ahead, they rested the doeki for a day and encouraged the beasts to gorge themselves on what would be the last available pasture until they reached the other side of the range.
Gentle had called his mount Chester, after dear old Klein, with whom it shared a certain ruminative charm. Pie declined to name the other beast, however, claiming it was bad luck to eat anything you knew by name, and circumstances might very well oblige them to dine on doeki meat before they reached the borders of the Third Dominion. That small disagreement aside, they kept their exchanges frictionless when they set off again, both consciously skirting any discussion of the events in Beatrix or their significance. The cold soon became aggressive, the coats they’d been given barely adequate defense against the assault of winds that blew up walls of dusty snow so dense they often obliterated the way ahead. When that happened Pie pulled out the compass—the face of which looked more like a star map to Gentle’s untutored eye—and assessed their direction from that. Only once did Gentle remark that he hoped the mystif knew what it was doing, earning such a withering glance for his troubles it silenced him utterly on the matter thereafter.
Despite weather that was worsening by the day—making Gentle think wistfully of an English January—good fortune did not entirely desert them. On the fifth day beyond the snow line, in a lull between gusts, Gentle heard bells ringing, and following the sound they discovered a group of half a dozen mountain men, tending to a flock of a hundred or more cousins to the terrestrial goat, these shaggier by far and purple as crocuses. The herders spoke no English, and only one of them, whose name was Kuthuss and who boasted a beard as shaggy and as purple as his beasts (leading Gentle to wonder what marriages of convenience had occurred in these lonely uplands), had any words in his vocabulary that Pie could comprehend. What he told was grim. The herders were bringing their herds down from the High Pass early because the snow had covered ground the beasts would have grazed for another twenty days in a normal season. This was not, he repeated several times, a normal season. He had never known the snow to come so early or fall so copiously; never known the winds to be so bitter. In essence, he advised them not to attempt the route ahead. It would be tantamount to suicide. Pie and Gentle talked this advice over. The journey was already taking far longer than they’d anticipated. If they went back down below the snow line, tempting as the prospect of relative warmth and fresh food was, they were wasting yet more time. Days when all manner of horrors could be unfolding: a hundred villages like Beatrix destroyed, and countless lives lost.