Katya shivered and paused to fasten her jacket. The trail seemed to go on forever, weaving across the loose stones as it climbed towards the pass. She no longer felt like talking. She just wanted to put her head down and get it over with. One of the pack ponies had stopped, its sides heaving.
“Keep going.” Andrew told her. “I’ll see to the pony.”
Katya saw no reason to refuse. She really wanted to be away from the barren, silent slopes. The roan followed her as she carried on. Once or twice, alongside the grey scatter of stones, she thought she saw bleached bones, heaped beside the track. It was a cheerless place. She kept walking, raising her collar to keep the rising wind from her face. After a while, she could only hear the roan’s shuffling steps behind her and paused.
Andrew was working his way up some way behind her, shooing the black pony in front of him. Katya waited, trying to draw as much air as she could into her lungs. She leaned against the roan, feeling light-headed. A dull ache nagged at her forehead.
“Are you all right?” Andrew asked, as he fell into step beside her once more.
“No. I think the altitude is beginning to get to me again.”
He looked up the slope. “It’s all right. We’re nearly at the top. Do you see the stones?”
Little black spots floated across Katya’s vision but she could make out the cluster of stone pillars about fifty feet away. “Yes.”
“That means we’re nearly there. The worst will be behind us.”
“Thank heavens for that.” She took another deep breath, it seemed a lot of effort for a meager lungful of air. She curled her hand into the roan’s mane and struggled on. Her legs felt heavy and her head light. She was convinced that, if it wasn’t attached to her neck, it would float off.
“Here, let me help you.” Andrew’s arm slipped around her waist. “You’re doing splendidly.”
Katya leaned against him, as much for the warmth as for the support. It did feel easier. She liked being close to him. There was something solid and comforting about his nearness and she felt that odd little tug in her gut once more when she looked at him.
The final few yards seemed to take forever. Beyond the pillars there was a small stone hut.
“Let’s rest here a little while.” Andrew told her. “We can wait for the horses to catch up and let them catch their breath.”
Katya slumped onto the bench inside the hut, glad to be out of the wind. The light was rapidly draining from the day. The cliffs were dark and the wind sang through the tumbled boulders. She clenched her teeth to stop them from chattering.
“Are you cold?”
She nodded. “A little.”
“We shouldn’t sit for too long. It’s best to keep moving.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “Does that help?”
“Yes.” Katya fought a sudden urge to rest her head on his shoulder.
They sat in silence, Katya listened for the shuffle of horses hooves. The roan had kept pace with her. He stood in the door way, watching her hopefully. He turned away and whickered as the remaining horses approached.
“Are you feeling a bit better now?”
“I think so.” Katya didn’t want to get too comfortable. It would’ve been too easy to fall asleep.
“Let’s get going then.” Andrew rose, took her gloved hand and pulled Katya to her feet. “I’d like to get over the next bit before the snow or rain starts.”