Rollo, his eyes searching until they stung in bright sunlight bouncing off the rock face, was certain now there was no way through. This was ludicrous. What were they doing on this stupid mountain? Hadn’t he been against coming here? Yes. What could they be thinking? It wasn’t a natural habitat. What was that animal—a goat—yes, they certainly weren’t goats. And who would want to be? Goats were obviously not very intelligent, probably as a result of living on the sides of mountains. Like those stupid eagles perched on a crag just above them. In point of fact, no sensible animal would live anywhere near a mountain if given a choice. And yet, here they were, climbing these hideously big, stupid rocks. Hadn’t he warned them? Of course, he had. And, as usual, no one had listened to him. Their way was blocked, and no doubt he would have to be the one to figure a way out of this mess, but at the moment, he couldn’t see what. He would be the one who would have the responsibility to come up with a way out. He knew that responsibility would frighten to others, but he wouldn’t let fear clutch him. He would remain calm. He knew they were depending on him.
“What can you see?” Malcolm definitely sounded worried.
“Nothing, just at the moment.” Rollo kept his tone unexpressive. He felt twinges of panic, just as he knew the others wanted did, but took comfort in his stoicism, one of his great strengths.
Malcolm mumbled, “never take a near-sighted moose anywhere.”
“In point of fact, all mooses are near-sighted.”
“I was joking.”
“Oh.” Some joke. It would seem that Malcolm was dealing with his fear as best as he could. Good. Just as well to keep things light, jokey.
“I can’t see any way of getting to the top,” said Theobald.
“What can you see?”
That was helpful. He knew that Theobald was being brave but—really—everyone was just a little too tense. A bit of humour might ease the strain. Rollo cleared his throat. “Maybe one of eagles would volunteer to carry us up.”
“And feed us,” said Malcolm.
“How would they do that?”
“It was a joke.”
“So was mine.”
“I know,” said Malcolm.
“Oh.” Do they expect me, Rollo wondered, to find a way through the mountains and keep their spirits up?
Manley lay with his snout on a rock. “If we offered to let them eat us they would probably help us through the mountains,” he said morosely.
“Yess,” muttered Malcolm absently, “quite possibly.”
“Very funny,” muttered Theobald.
“Quite possibly?” said Manley.
“Eating,” said Malcolm, staring upward, pondering.
“I found it mildly amusing,” said Rollo. The first step, he knew, would be to take charge. Any panic would endanger them all.
“Quite possibly?” repeated Manley.
“I don’t think it would work,” said Miranda.
She was watching Malcolm intently, Rollo noted. Good. It meant she still wanted to be actively involved.
Malcolm glanced at her. “We don’t seem to have many other ideas just now.” Looking up, he suddenly shouted, “Hey!”
Whom was Malcolm shouting at? Both Eagles were watching them from a rock high up.
“Hey,” he shouted again.
One of the eagles lifted off, swooped low close above them, and came to rest on a rock a tree length away. After a breath or two, it glanced at them then looked away. Malcolm stared placidly at the eagle. “I’d like a word,” he said loudly.
The other eagle circled above as the eagle perched on the rock, glancing at Malcolm again. “What about?”
Rollo didn’t like the sound of the eagle’s voice. It was tight and carnivorous—the gabble of a flesh eater.
“I don’t like to shout.”
Rollo watched Malcolm turn from the eagle. He couldn’t figure out what Malcolm was doing. Whatever it was, he was taking his time about it. “Why are we talking to them?” Rollo whispered.
Malcolm whispered. “It’s possible they may know a way through the mountains.”
“You think they’d tell us?” Rollo was incredulous. What was Malcolm thinking?
Waiting, Malcolm had lowered his head and was looking for forage. Then, to Rollo’s amazement, the eagle lifted off the rock and glided down slowly towards them, lighting on a rock half a tree length away.
“If you wait for the rats, you won’t get any meat.”
The eagle peered at him for a long breath. “You know that for certain, do you?”
Rollo looked at the eagle, then at Malcolm. Meat?
“You really think they’ll share with you?”
The eagle stared at Malcolm, then laughed. “You’re a foxy moose, heh, heh, I’ll give you that.”
Rollo tried to catch Malcolm’s eye. “What are you talking about?” he whispered.
Malcolm didn’t look at him, or say anything. Nor did he look at the eagle. He regarded the rock face. Rollo watched the eagle. He was pondering something as well, but what?
“What’re you offering?” said the eagle abruptly.
Malcolm glanced at him, as though he’d forgotten he was there. “You can have the three small ones. The fisher marten and I go free.”
“What?” Rollo muttered. He stared at Malcolm who was watching the eagle who was evaluating him. “What?” Rollo repeated. He looked at Manley and Theobald. They were staring at Malcolm, with their mouths open. Miranda was watching the eagle. “What did you say?” Rollo repeated, louder.
“That’s it?” the eagle enquired.
“No. You have to tell me how to get through the mountains.”
“I know there’s a way. I just can’t see it from here.”
“Three small ones?” persisted Rollo. Was Malcolm thinking of rats?.
Silence. Then the eagle opened his wings. “I’ll be back,” he said and rose abruptly into the sky, joining his friend.
“What’re they doing?” Malcolm asked Miranda who was peering up at them.
“How do you know there’s a way through?”
“I don’t, but how does the goat get up there?”
“What did you mean?” demanded Theobald.
“The three small ones?”
Malcolm looked at him. “Nothing. It’s just an idea.”
Rollo was trying to glimpse Malcolm’s face. What he was thinking. He didn’t look like Malcolm. His eyes were hard. Rollo noted Theobald swivelling his head from side to side, agitated.
Rollo looked up. Both eagles rose high into the air until they disappeared over the ridge of the mountain.
“What’re they doing?” asked Malcolm.
Miranda smiled slightly. “Looking for a pass through the mountains.”
“They’re not really looking for a pass, are they?” Rollo asked. Miranda looked at him but offered no reassurance in her expression. Suddenly, it dawned on him. The three small ones—him, Manley and Theobald—were the “meat”.
“What are we talking about?” asked Manley.
“We…wwweee…!” screamed Rollo, as fear clawed his belly, “… arrrre the meeeeeat!” He was trying to overcome a sudden dizziness. How could Malcolm be doing this? He was his friend. Obviously, he wasn’t. In point of fact, the Moose was trying to survive. Rollo tried not to look down the mountain but he did. There was no longer a grey-brown line. He could make out individual rat bodies climbing determinedly towards them. They were at most half a sun away. He stared at his paws, now shaking. As he was taking deep breaths to ease his panic, it occurred to him that possibly the eagles would eat Theobald and Manley first and be too full to eat him. Did eagles kill now and eat later? He couldn’t remember. He was thinking selfishly, he knew, but Manley and Theobald must be thinking the same as they watched the sky for the eagles.
Malcolm was still, not moving, not looking at anyone. For a breath, anger distracted Rollo. He wanted to bite Malcolm. Then the two eagles swooped over the ridge and glided down to settle on a rock nearby.
“Tell my friend the deal,” said the white-headed eagle.
“You take the three, the fisher marten and I go free.”
Suddenly Rollo’s mouth was open and he was yelling, “Nahhhhhnnnnnnn ahhhhyyy yyaaaaaaaaa!!”
Ignoring him, Malcolm spoke fast. “Let’s do it quickly. Where’s the pass?”
Suddenly, Manley and Theobald started chanting, “Nahhanaa auuugghhhhh!! Noaauuuughhhhh!”
Rollo’s yell had startled the eagles, but now they stared at the three screaming animals with irritation. “Okay, step aside.”
Malcolm shook his head. “First, we have to know where the pass is. It’s not that I’d don’t trust you.”
“And it’s not that we don’t trust you, pal, heh, heh.”
Rollo’s hatred—a powerful hatred—was causing him to vibrate, and he screamed, “Gooooo awaaaaaaaay,” at the eagle. The eagle glanced at him with disdain.
Malcolm’s tone was sharp. “What if I discover there’s no passage after you have my friends?”
The eagle smiled warmly. “They must be close friends if you’re letting us have them, heh, heh.” Malcolm stopped, then turned away, not looking at Miranda, Manley, Theobald or Rollo. He stared at the rock face.
The two eagles abruptly soared upward for a moment, conferring, before drifting back down. “Okay, we’re agreed.”
Malcolm waited. “Well?”
“You see the slight cut in the rock to the right?”
Malcolm looked up, peering off. Rollo stopped yelling, and looked as well. He wanted to tell the eagle that mooses were near-sighted.
“Yes.” said Malcolm.
“That’s a crevice leading to a gap, but I don’t know if a moose can get through. So don’t blame me if you can’t. We kept our part of the bargain, right?”
“Right,” said Malcolm.
“Now ask the fisher marten to step back.”
Rollo started screaming again. Strangely, screaming made him feel better. “Naaaughghghghgaaaahh!!”
“All right.” Malcolm nodded at Miranda who bounded half a tree length up the rocks.
“Okay, step aside so that we get to our dinner, heh, heh.”
“You’ll have to go around, I’ve injured my knees,” Malcolm said, looking down at his bloodied knees.
The eagle peered at Malcolm’s legs. “Okay,” he said, lifting off and swooping down.
Rollo, taut with fear, saw the eagle zooming at him with outstretched talons. Before he could think of moving, talons clutched his chest and he was lifted neatly from the ground, which then fell rapidly away. Then, a slamming jolt and he was falling downward, hitting a rock sharply, rolling up to Malcolm’s hooves. At that moment, something heavy, soft, hot and feathery smothered him as he fought to breathe.
He came up through feathers, dazed but aware now that the eagle was lying on top of him. “Agghhhhhh!” He had to escape. The eagle would start plucking away at him at any minute. “Get off me!” he shouted hysterically, until Malcolm pushed the eagle’s body off the rock with his hoof.
Suddenly, above him, there was a scream. “You dastard!” The remaining eagle circled and swooped in a frenzy shouting, “you lying, thieving dastard! You’ll get yours!”
“Wha… wha…?” asked Rollo, staring at the eagle lying at Malcolm’s hooves.
“You’ll get yours!” screamed the eagle once again before soaring away.
Miranda examined the eagle. “It’s dead.”
“Dead?” sputtered Rollo.
He felt Miranda nuzzle him.
Theobald exclaimed, “Malcolm whacked the eagle with his rack…”
Rollo stared at Malcolm, stupified. “You killed it?” He felt his heart pulsating. “… he caught the legs of the eagle and bashed it against a rock.”
Malcolm didn’t smile, or look at them. He said nothing. He peered down the mountainside, “How close are they?”
Miranda looked down. “Close.”
“Let’s keep moving.”
Rollo tried to walk but when he put his paw out, it trembled and he sat hastily to catch his breath. He tried to remember what had occurred, but all he could recall were jolts of fear. Those he wanted to forget.
As the light started to fade, Malcolm lurched upward to reach the rock face. Killing the eagle had stunned him and he had to focus on pushing himself to mount the slope, each step purchased slowly and carefully, knees hot with pain. Reaching the sheer wall of mountain, he stopped, leaned forward, and put his snout against the cool rock face. For a short, sharp breath, he felt alive, vibrant, and hopeful. All they had to do now was to inch along the wall until they came to the gap. As he worked his way forward, he realized he could lean against the rock face. He needed to rest but knew that they were running out of time.
“Tell me when you see the gap,” he instructed Theobald, putting a hoof forward, testing the rock for solidity.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes. I’ll watch for it.”
Malcolm fought off his resentment—which he knew was unreasonable—by keeping his thoughts on finding the way upward as quickly as he could.
“Ought you to be going so fast?”
“Just watch for the opening.”
Theobald didn’t deserve his harsh tone but he was feeding his resentment He would make it up to him, once they found the pass, once they were up the mountain, but where was it?
Suddenly Miranda squeezed by with Manley on her back, speeding on, stopping, until she was a blur against the rock and sky in the distance.
“What’s she doing?”
“Searching.” muttered Theobald. He sounded weak, weaker than Malcolm felt. “She’s coming back.”
Malcolm pressed forward, ignoring the hot searing pain in his knees, as she trotted up to him. “Anything?” he asked.
“Nothing that looks like a way through.”
“Did you go far enough?”
“It drops off.”
“There’s no gap?” Malcolm muttered, insensibly.
“What?” asked Rollo, who was some distance behind.
Theobald muttered, “No gap?”
Malcolm refused to believe what he should have known—that the eagle would lie. He’d wanted to believe that a gap existed even though, as far as his eye could focus, the rock face seemed sheer. And now Miranda had confirmed it. He had been out-foxed, out-smarted. He was in pain and exhausted. “It appears there is no gap,” he muttered to himself.
“What?” said Manley.
“It appears there is no gap, no way up,” he repeated loudly, even though he knew he was angry at himself and taking it out on the others. “There is no gap,” he shouted.
“No way up?” asked Manley.
“Not that I can see,” said Malcolm. “Not that I could see it even if it were there,” he muttered in self-pity. By their silence, he could sense that his behaviour was frightening them. “It would appear there is no escape.”
“You mean the eagle was lying?” asked Rollo.
“You didn’t think he was telling the truth, did you, Rollo?” muttered Theobald.
“But what if there is a gap in the mountains?” asked Manley, rolling off Miranda’s back.
“Why can’t we just accept that there isn’t.” Malcolm felt irritated with Manley. He wanted to kick him.
“Why shouldn’t we accept that there is?” repeated Manley, not defiantly but insistently.
Malcolm leaned over, looking at him closely, as though he didn’t recognize him. “Manley, there is no gap, no pass, no opening to take us higher. We’re trapped. What’s the point of pretending we aren’t?”
“What’s the point of thinking we are?”
Malcolm slowly lifted his hoof and brought it near Manley, in a manner that might have appeared threatening. He could see the surprise in Rollo’s expression. And in Manley’s who was aware of something large just above his head. Miranda was watching him carefully.
“I’m hungry” said Rollo.
Malcolm wondered if he had heard correctly. “What?”
“I’m hungry,” repeated Rollo.
Malcolm sputtered the words, “Rollo, there is no gap.”
“I heard you, but I’m still hungry.”