Alpine Dawn II — a teaser
As many of you know, I am currently writing the much-delayed second volume to my Alpine Dawn series. The first volume, The Atholl Expedition, is currently available on Kindle and in paperback. I hope to release the second, The Invisible Path, this year.
Here’s a portion of a scene in which Josette Barbier sees the mountains of the Alps for the first time, and meets a significant character. As always, this is uncorrected rough draft material.
1848 — JUNE
Josette wandered alone.
Smith had not seen her leave the inn. He was busy with his work, and since they had left the smoking wreck of Paris he had spoken of little but his quest.
La Pégremont. Her heart broke a little more each time she heard him utter that name. She did not even know precisely what it was, but she knew what it meant to her — the destruction of a once-happy family, the abandonment of her mother to a life of shame and poverty; finally the death of her father and the city she had loved above all else.
Her life had been filled with happiness before the quest had consumed her father’s mind, leaving room for nothing more.
Now Albert, her childhood friend and the last untainted memory from the time before all had failed and wilted, could think of nothing but the quest which had ruined every moment of her life.
Tormented, she trod the crooked alleys of Zermatt, giving no thought to her direction of travel. She passed beneath the eaves of the church and the hummocky earth of the burial ground. To her surprise, the charnel house had no door. Morbid curiosity got the better of her and she peered into the timber structure to see a raven pecking at a skull.
She shivered and drew her ragged dress more tightly around her shoulders. She had heard of the savage practices of these remote valleys.
Within a few minutes of walking she had left the village. She was astonished that it could be so small, but then she had never before left Paris. They had passed through many villages on the long stagecoach journey across France and through Geneva, but none appeared to merge into the wilderness as abruptly as this one. After the last ramshackle hay loft, the road plunged directly into an ocean of rippling grassland, painted iridescent shades of green and magenta by the brisk sun and a steady wind from the valley head. Her gaze followed a wave in the long grass as it sped away from her with a sound like dry grain falling through her fingers. The ripple passed through a cloud shadow, parted at a gigantic boulder, and finally died a little way up the slope where the first stands of trees stood guarding the mountain ramparts above.
She had felt absent on the journey from Paris: a ghost, her mind imprisoned by the carefree betrayal of her genial travelling companion; blind to her surroundings as visions of fire, death, and the annihilation of the world she knew occupied all of her senses.
Now her senses were open. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Outside the stale atmosphere of the village, she breathed the purest air she had ever tasted. It was … cold, yet also warm. She smelled what she imagined to be the scent of distant snow, and flowers, and ripe grass, and animals free to roam and to live — not confined in stinking cellar pens that smelt of death.
She opened her eyes, and allowed that lowest fringe of forest to capture her gaze and sweep upward. Trees, trees by the million, stretched in an unbroken swathe from the edge of the grassland to a point higher in the sky that she would have believed possible. The textures delighted her as much as the colours. The world she knew was made of hard lines and dull shades, and mud, everywhere mud; but here was a rich, random, organic tapestry like nothing she had ever seen.
Only after her eyes had drank in every detail of that wild forest did she dare raise her head and look higher still.
And she beheld the ice world.
A dome of white dominated the valley. It was the biggest thing she had ever seen. Fractured into crystalline shapes, with a smoothed-over brow that reflected a delicate blue, it seemed as distant as Heaven. When she squinted at it, the light was so powerful that it seared her eyes. A great tendril of snow reached down from that elevated plateau, tumbling in chaotic shapes down the valley a few miles to the south. It looked rather like a slumbering dragon; dark lines or ridges followed the curves of its spine, and a torrent sprang from a cavern where its mouth would be. If she listened carefully she could hear cracks, bangs and echoes carrying on the wind.
She wondered if that was what her father had called a “glacier”. It frightened her a little; she wondered when the beast would awaken and bring ruin to the people who lived in the valley below.
So intent had Josette been in her study of the mountain that she failed to notice the approach of a stranger until his shadow fell upon her. She gasped and shrank back, suddenly wary.
‘Do not be frightened, miss!’
The man’s voice was low, rich, with a curious nasal accent. She understood his French, but it was not Parisian.
She looked up. At first she saw only the silhouette of a powerful man, all wide-brimmed hat and square shoulders; but then her eyes adjusted to the harsh lighting and she found herself able to discern a few details.
He was of medium height — not more than a few inches taller than she was herself — and wore a much-darned shirt of chequered fabric, loose at the collar. He carried a jacket over his left shoulder and supported himself with a long pole. She noted a hatchet wedged in his belt, and beneath his hat the skin of his face was deeply lined and tanned the colour of old leather. An enormous black beard completed the picture, but it was his eyes that captured her attention: uncommonly large, mobile, and imbued with an intelligence she had not expected.
‘I am sorry, Monsieur,’ she replied instinctively, stepping out of his way, averting her eyes.
‘Nothing to be sorry for.’ She saw him smile in her peripheral vision. ‘And I am no Monsieur. They call me Balmat.’