Trees. Snow. Cold that insinuated itself under the skin, wound about the bones, like a starving cat. In the hour since they had left Tanis’s cottage, Fox felt he had trudged for days through a hostile, if beautiful, landscape of tortures. He could not feel his toes, and his breath had frozen into many-faceted pebbles of ice on the woolen muffler wrapped about his face. His legs, also numb, weighed as much as the hulking boulders he and Crowe passed as they jogged along the deer trail. When he fell to his knees in the blue-shaded snow, he was not aware that he had stopped moving, and he knelt swaying in a dream of perpetual flight, feeling the heat from his body’s core floating up out of the depths of his parka.
“Fox. Fox. Inspector!” Crowe’s face swam into view, concern and irritation mixing in an almost comical blend in the eyes above the frosty three-day beard. “Can you stand?”
“Yes, yes, just give me your hand.” Fox pulled himself to his feet. “I’m nearly frozen. I do hope you know where we’re going.” He thumped his arms and shoulders with gusto to break the ice in his blood.
“We’re going to meet the wolves. They’ll be along this trail, fanned out with their eyes peeled for deer. The river is near, too. Listen.”
Fox freed an ear from a hat flap. It was instantly savaged by the cold, but he heard the echoing roar of the river pitching over a steep descent, too swift and muscular to have frozen yet. Another sound, still distant, glossed his skin with a different kind of cold. The howl of a wolf, full-throated and deep, rose over the trees. It was a dead winter moon of sound, a harsh song of hunger sound, and soon others joined it. Crowe tilted his head and turned toward the chorus.
“That’s it, Inspector. Hear them?” He took Fox by the shoulder in an iron grip. “The killer you seek is out there. It won’t stray far from the wolves. We can take it, but there is danger here the like of which you’ve never faced. Are you for it?”
Fox thought of the lovely, stunned face of the murdered girl, and of brave Peter Moon on his lonely rounds, torn open like an envelope. He thought of Dr. Sang’s blithe dismissal of death beyond the wall, and the spirits of the dead seemed to rise before him and plead for vengeance. He was beyond his depth here. This was no ordinary murderer. There would be no justice as he knew it.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m with you.”
“Good man. Look to your weapon, and be ready to move along that ridge, there. I’ll circle round to meet you. The thing will come swiftly when I blow the whistle, but it can’t cross the river. We’ll use the water as a third man and catch it between us.” Crowe’s voice was calm and steady, but his eyes danced.
Fox nodded. “What of the wolves?”
“Don’t let them catch you, Inspector. Run for the river and be swift, like a good fox.” Crowe grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. “Are you ready?”
Before Fox could reply, Crowe lifted the whistle to his lips and blew. The finger bone emitted a haunting note, surprisingly full for such a slender instrument. It hovered over the forest, perfect and mellow in the stillness, and then a breeze sighed through the creaking boughs, carrying it away. The breeze fluttered over them, scintillating with snow dust, and it brought a faint voice. Gideon, it whispered. Gideon …
“My God,” Fox said, “it knows your name.” But Crowe was gone, running low and fast under the snow-freighted trees, and Fox watched the darkness there swallow him. Wrapping his muffler tighter about his face, the Inspector set off at a trot to find the river.
He was within sight of the falls, the water bucking and plunging even as streamers of it froze to the rocks of the gorge, when they came for him. The hemlocks had thinned, and a dark army of oaks ran away in ranks before him. The wolves ghosted over the snow, flickering in and out of existence as they passed among the trees. They were silent. Fox ran before them, all his speed and strength employed, his hat, muffler, and parka, even his rifle, shed in his flight. He pumped his arms and sprinted, nearly parallel to the ground, for his life. The cold was a memory. His hair steamed with perspiration. The wolves pursued him at their leisure, their long, red grins the only color in his nightmare. He came to the edge of the ravine, flailing and skidding, and watched stones kicked up in his slide go sailing over the edge, tumbling through the icy spray of the falls, past the black tentacles of roots that had burst from the earth to hang over the glass heart of the river. His own heart thundered like the falls, and he knew he could go no further. He stumbled along the crumbling lip, his eyes on the ground in front of him. He still had his pistol, and he drew it from his belt with a shaking hand. He wondered where Crowe had got to.
The silence, when it came, was so profound it shocked him to a halt. It seemed to flower around him, expanding in the air, and time slowed. He looked up. The wolves stood or sat between the trees, attentive, tongues lolling. He saw movement from the corner of his eye and whirled toward it with the languor of a man in a dream. A child stood before him, a girl of perhaps twelve years, small for her age. She wore a scarlet cloak, the hood wide and loose over her dark hair. It was a rich garment. He could make out intricate patterns in its weave, threads of deeper red that told a story, if only he could focus on them. The cloak was fine, the finest work he’d seen, but its hem was ragged. The hem of the cloak filled him with loathing, and he came back to himself with a cry. The girl was naked beneath the red cloak, her skin as smooth and white as eternity, her newly budding breasts tipped with a wash of blue. He looked at her dainty bare feet, and at the blank serenity of her face. A curl of birch bark hung about her neck on a strand of root or vine, and the word written upon it was SNOW. She put a finger on it, setting it swinging, and the clouds let go a thick swan’s down of lazy flakes. They caught on his eyelashes and melted into tears.
“What do you want?” he croaked.
He would never know the answer. In a rush, Crowe was there, shouting at him. He made no sense of the words. He heard the sharp report of a rifle, a shrill scream like a shiver of bells. There was a scuffle. Crowe grasped his shoulder, and he heard him say I’m sorry, Fox, and then he was out over the drop where the freezing breath of the river rose up to claim him. He fell, his face to the sky. It was like lying on his back to look at the clouds. He saw a vivid swoop of red shoot through the falling snow above him. He saw the black banner of her hair, and her delicate white limbs stretching for the far bank, and the rage in her eyes as she looked back once, but she could not cross. Crowe must have torn the birch bark charm from her. It crashed through the slow air toward him, and then it was past him, lost in the silent roar of the water. The red cloak burst apart, even as the girl flew away in snow and shadow, and blood rained down on him as he plunged into the river, and the sudden bloom of ice seized him.