by Christian Vassie

chapter 1 - frontiers I 18th December 2011

Down the steep mountain slope, hidden by the trees, the snowmobiles are revving their engines. The dogs are snarling and barking, straining to be let off the leash, eager to hunt me down and sink their razor fangs into my legs. Even if I run all night they will still be on my heels, following my footprints in the snow or tracking my scent along the forest floor.

Movement in the darkness to my right. The monochrome night vision image in my binoculars reveals what my eyes can’t see, a dozen deer sitting in the shadows. A stag with huge antlers. Why haven’t they run away?

The breeze in my face tells me that I am downwind. That, and the noise of the snowmobiles and the dogs, is masking my presence.

A deer climbs to her feet and, as she does so, I realise what I must do. Quietly dropping the binoculars into my backpack, I stand up and shoulder the pack in one fluid movement. Now I know where to look, I can make out the vague shapes beneath the trees. A dog barks. The deer’s ears turn towards the noise. I use the distraction as my cover. Rushing forwards, I leap onto the stag’s back, throwing my arms around his neck as he scrambles to his feet.

He must weigh three times more than I do. Low-hanging branches claw at me as the herd charges into the depths of the forest. I press my face in the stag’s thick winter mane, squeeze my thighs and cling to his back like a limpet.

The herd crashes through the trees and bursts into a clearing. For a brief second, a moon hangs above us in silent witness before we dive back under the cover of the forest. Snow kicks up in all directions and the panting exertions of the animals crowd the air. Their eyes are wide with fear.

While the snowmobiles can match our speed, this journey follows no paths. Now my scent is masked by the musk of the deer and my last footsteps are two hundred metres away and falling ever further behind. Will that be enough to lose the dogs?

The mountain gets steeper. By a near vertical drop the stag loses his footing, threatening to send us both tumbling into the void. Frantically he scrambles forwards while I cling to his neck as if my life depends on it. Which it does.

Still too close to the precipice, a sharp weight scrapes and scratches my back; a broken branch has become wedged under my backpack. Reaching behind me, I wrestle one-handedly with the branch, trying to dislodge it while gripping the stag as he strains every muscle to escape. His action serves only to dig the branch further in. I howl and the noise startles him and he stops pushing forward long enough for me to drop a shoulder and pull the branch up and over my head.

As the stag surges forward, a doe crashes into the back of us and loses her footing. Unable to alter her course, she slides and tumbles over the edge. There is a sickening crunch as she smacks the rocks way beneath us.

On and on through the darkness beneath the trees. By the time exhaustion brings the herd to a standstill, we are far from the village and deep in the alpine forests. I slip from the stag’s back and drop into the snow. The stag collapses beside me. Are we in France or in Italy? It no longer matters. The night is thick with gasping and grunting as the deer’s heaving lungs claw the thin air. Steam rises from their backs and blossoms in front of their open mouths.

Shaking from head to toe, I sit up and wait beside the stag to check he is all right. My cheek is burning where the branches have scratched me. Finally, satisfied that the stag’s breathing is returning to normal, I pat his shoulder and stagger off. It doesn’t take long to find a path, then a junction and a sign post. In one direction lies Claviere, in the other Cesana Torinese. Cesana Torinese sounds more Italian. The path leads upwards and out above the tree line. Under the moon’s blind eye I stumble along a snow crisp path, the bare rock of the mountains above me. I reach a cattle shed but every door is bolted. A little further on the path becomes a road.

Please let there be a house.

There are no houses, but there is another signpost that reads Rifugio di montagna 300m. I am in Italy. The snow is falling heavily now.

I half walk, half run. There it is, on the edge of the forest, a mountain refuge. The door is unlocked. I tumble inside, pushing the door closed with my feet, and lie there shivering. The wind rattles the wooden shutters. A clock ticks. Moonlight penetrates the single room through chinks in the shutters and, as my eyes adjust, I see a table and chairs, an old sofa, a sink and some cupboards ...

So here I am in this wooden cabin. Two days ago everything I am about to write would have seemed impossible or insane or both.

I was studying for my GCSEs, bored with Facebook, who isn’t, and wondering whether this Christmas would be any better than the last one. Which was rubbish, since you ask. While I was packing my bags, Mum was hovering and mumbling that Brussels was unsafe. Like a war zone, apparently. As if she had ever been to Belgium herself. It was just the scab peeling off the old family wound, worry about me travelling alone, worry about another Blanchard disappearing without trace … and then there were two.

I’m holding his hand as he leads me down a dimly lit corridor that is rocking from side to side. No windows. The floor is shiny. A door, with a wheel stuck in the middle of it, is opening up ahead. Rippling blue light spills into the corridor. I grip Dad’s hand tighter.

A square of deep impossible water high above my head, its surface rippling. A grey shape drifts lazily beneath the surface. An eye, metallic and dull, stares down at me. The eye has no eyebrow. I scream. Dad laughs and spins me towards …

I sit bolt upright in the darkness of the cabin. My heart thumps against my ribs like a tourist shaking in a diving cage while a great white shark smiles its teeth, the way can-openers do. Idiot for falling asleep. Waves of panic surge over the rock of my six-year-old self as I relive the long empty months after he disappeared, shouting out at the top of my voice, on a walk, in the car, on the beach, in the park … Dad, Dad. DAD!

Copyright © 2014 Christian Vassie