She wanted to ask Lop-ear about it; perhaps he would understand. But he had already hurried ahead, and she didn’t want to linger alone in this unnatural place; she ran to catch him up.
With the Nest of Straight Lines behind them, they approached the half-frozen sea.
"What I saw must have been about here," said Silverhair, trying to think.
Lop-ear looked around and raised his trunk. "I can’t smell anything."
The two mammoths walked a little way onto the ice, which squeaked and crackled under them. The ice that clung closest to the shore, where the sea was frozen all the way to the bottom, was called landfast ice. It formed in protected bays, or drifted in from the sea. Its width varied depending on how deep the water was. Later in the summer the landfast ice would break free and melt, or drift away with the pack ice.
The pack ice was the frozen surface of the deeper ocean. It was a blue-white sheet crumpled into pressure ridges, like lines of sand dunes sculpted in white. Farther away from the land Silver-hair could see black lines carved in the ice: leads, cracks exposing open water between the loose mass of floes. As the spring wore on, the leads would extend in toward the coast, splitting off the ice floes. The floes would break up, or be washed out to open sea by the powerful current that ran between the Mainland and the Island.
Dark clouds hung over the open Channel, that forbidding stretch of black, open water; the clouds formed from the steam rising from the water.
And on a floe far from the land, she made out a black, unmoving shape.
She trumpeted in triumph. Gulls, startled awake, cawed in response.
"There!" she cried. "Do you see it?"
Lop-ear patiently stared where she did. "I don’t see a thing. Just pressure ridges, and shadows… Oh."
"You do see it! You do! That’s what I saw, floating in the sea — and now it’s on the ice."
It might have been the size of a mammoth, she supposed — but a mammoth lying inert on the floe. All Silverhair’s fear had evaporated like hoarfrost, so great was her gladness at rediscovering the strange object. "Come on." And she set out across the landfast ice.
Reluctantly Lop-ear followed.
As they moved away from the shore, the quality of the sound changed. The soft lapping of the sea was gone, and the ice creaked and groaned as it shifted on the sea, a deep rumble like the call of a mammoth.
The pressure ridges were high here, frozen waves that came almost up to her shoulder. The ridges were topped by blue ice, scoured clean by the wind, and soft snow lay in the hollows between them. The ridges were difficult to scramble over, so Silverhair found a lead and walked along at the edge of the water, where the ice was flatter.
Frost-smoke, sparkling in the sunlight, rose from the black, oily water.
On one floe she found the grisly site of a polar bear’s kill. It was a seal’s breathing hole, iced over and tinged with blood. She could see a bloodstained area of ice where the bear must have dragged the seal and devoured it. And there was a hollowed-out area of snow near a pressure ridge, marked by black excrement, where the bear had probably slept after its bloody feast.
The wind picked up. Ice crystals swirled around her. When she looked up at the sun, she saw a halo around it. She knew she must be careful, for that was a sign the sea ice might break up.
She came to a place where the pressure ridges towered over her. Surrounded by the ridges, all she could see was the neighboring hummocks and the sky above.
She struggled to the top of a crag of ice.
From here she could see the tops of the other ridges, and the narrow valleys that separated them. They looked as if they had been scraped into this ice surface by some gigantic tusk.
And she realized that she had walked farther out to sea than she had imagined, for she found herself staring up at an iceberg.
It was a wedge-shaped block trapped in the pack ice. She saw how its base had been sculpted into great smooth columns by the water that lapped there, and by the scouring of windblown particles of ice and snow. Blue light seemed to shine from within the body of the translucent ice.
Farther from the shore she saw many giant bergs, frozen in, standing stark and majestic all across title sea ice. The ice between the bergs was smooth and flat. Older bergs, silhouetted in the low light, were wind-sculpted and melted, some of them carved into spires, arches, pinnacles, caves, and other fantastic shapes. Perhaps they would not survive another summer. She could see that some of the bergs had shattered into smaller pieces, and here and there she made out growlers, the hard, compact cores of melted bergs, made of compressed greenish ice, polished smooth by the waves.
In the light of the low sun, the colors of the bergs varied from white to blue, pink and purple, even a rich muddy brown, strange-shaped scraps littering the pack ice.
And from this vantage, Silverhair saw the strange object she had come so far to find.
Dark and mysterious, the thing rested on a floe that had all but broken away from the main mass of pack ice. Only a neck of ice, ten or eleven paces wide, still connected the floe to the land.
She scrambled down the ridge to the edge of the floe. Then she hesitated, looking down with trepidation at the narrow ice bridge and the unyielding blackness of the water below. Lop-ear came to join her.
"It’s quite wide," she said uncertainly. She took a step forward, near the center of the bridge, and pushed at the ice with her lead foot. It creaked and bowed, meltwater pooling under her foot, but it held. "If I keep away from the edges it should be safe."
"Silverhair, that’s terribly dangerous."
"We’ve come this far—"
And without letting herself think about it any further, she stepped forward onto the bridge.
One step, then another: avoiding the rotten ice, testing every pace, she worked her way steadily across the bridge.
The water lapped only a few paces to either side of her.
At last she arrived on the floe. The ice there, though bowing a little, was relatively solid. There were even some pressure ridges here, one or two of the ridges as tall as she was.
She turned and looked back to Lop-ear. He was a compact, dark shape on a broad sheet of blue-white ice, and he seemed a long way away.
She raised her trunk and trumpeted bravely. "Don’t follow me. The bridge is fragile."
"Come back as soon as you can, Silverhair."
She turned and with caution made her way across the floe.
The mysterious object was, she supposed, about the size of a large adult mammoth. Overall it looked something like a huge, stretched-out eggshell. It was flat at one end, tusk-sharp at the other, and hollow inside. But she could see that the bottom of it was smashed to pieces, perhaps by a collision with the ice.
It certainly wasn’t made of ice.
She reached out a tentative trunk-finger and stroked its surface.
She snatched back her trunk, shocked. It was wood, covered by some hard, shining coat — a coat that masked its smell — but wood nonetheless.
The short hairs on her scalp prickled. Something about this thing — perhaps the short, sharp lines of its construction — reminded her unpleasantly of the Nest of Straight Lines.
There was a cracking sound.
"Silverhair!" Lop-ear’s voice sounded disturbingly remote.
She spun around, and in the light of the already setting sun, she saw two things simultaneously.
The narrow ice bridge back to the pack ice had collapsed, stranding her here.
And there was a monster on the ice floe.
The monster seemed to have stepped from behind a pressure ridge, where it had been hidden from her view — and she from its. It was smaller than she was — much smaller. It was, perhaps, about the size of a small seal. It had four legs. It was standing on its hind legs, like a seal balancing on its tail.
But this was no seal.
Its legs were long: longer, in proportion, even than a mammoth’s. It was skinny — surely it could not withstand the cold with so little fat to insulate it — and it didn’t have any fur, not even on its shiny, hairless, skull-like head. In fact, it seemed to have nothing to protect it but a loose-fitting outer skin.
Its ears were small, and startlingly like a mammoth’s. Its eyes were set at the front of its head, like a wolf’s — a predator’s eyes, the better to hunt with. And those binocular eyes were fixed on Silverhair, in fear or calculation.
It was clutching things in its forelegs. In one paw it held something shiny, like a shard of ice. In the other was something soft that dripped blood. It was the liver of a walrus, she recognized. And there was blood all around the monster’s small mouth.
A child of Aglu, then.
She must show no fear. What would Longtusk have done in such a situation?
She lowered her head so her tusks would not seem a threat, and she spoke to the creature. "I am called Silverhair," she said. "And you—"
Its predator’s eyes were wide, its gaze fixed on her, its small, hairless face wreathed in steam. There was frost on its shining dome of a head. It was a male, she decided, for she could see no sign of dugs.
"I will call you ‘Skin-of-Ice,’ " she said.
She took a step toward the creature, meaning to touch him with her trunk, as mammoths will when they meet; perhaps she would go through the greeting ritual with him.
But he cried out. He raised the glittering, sharp thing in his paw, and backed away.
The wind picked up abruptly, and ice crystals whirled around her face. The floe rocked, and she stumbled.
When she looked again, the monster had gone.
She caught one last glimpse of him, hopping nimbly across the widening leads, heading for the shore far from Silverhair and Lop-ear.
The wind began to blow more strongly through the Channel. The sea became choppy, and as it drifted through the Channel the ice floe began to break up. Soon Silverhair found herself stranded in a mass of loose ice that was drifting rapidly eastward.
Suddenly she was in peril.
But now Lop-ear was calling her, with a deep rumble that easily crossed the ice and water to her. "This way! This way!"
She saw that a smaller floe had nudged alongside the floe she rode. It was even more fragile than the one she was riding — but it was closer to the shore.
Not allowing herself to hesitate, she marched briskly across the narrow lead to the smaller floe.
Behind her the ice at the floe’s edge crumbled into fragments.
This floe, much smaller than the first, was spinning slowly, and heaving from side to side in the heavy swell as the current swept it along. Then another floe came bumping alongside with a crunch of smashing ice; she hurried forward onto it, and found herself a little closer again to land.
So she worked her way, floe by floe, across the ice, following a complex path that she hoped would lead her to the shore.
At the edge of one floe, a herd of walrus were gamboling among the loose ice. They completely ignored her. It was a mixed group, mothers with calves of various ages, and one massive male with long, curved tusks protruding from his small face. Some of the walruses had their tusks hooked to the edge of the ice as they rested, to save themselves from sinking as they slept. The stink of walrus was almost overpowering, for it seemed they had been defecating on the same floe all winter. The walrus scratched hoarfrost from their bodies with surprisingly gentle flippers, and occasionally turned over in great heaps of pinkish blubbery flesh, their long ivory tusks glinting in the sun.
With their warty skin, wide mustaches, and tiny heads atop their long, ponderous bodies, Silverhair found it hard to think of the walrus as anything but spectacularly ugly.
She wondered sadly if one of this comfortable family had fallen victim to Skin-of-Ice. Perhaps they didn’t know about it yet.
Silverhair skirted the walrus carefully.
Her progress was agonizing — one step forward, another back — and she lost track of the time she had spent here, inching across the treacherous ice.
Brown mist, blown from over the open water, swirled around her, making it hard to keep to her chosen track. The loose floes spun around, crashed and tilted, and she felt as if the whole world, of ice and sea and land, were in motion. More than once she stepped through rotten ice, and her feet took more dunkings in the icy water, and the fur on her legs was soon heavy and stiff with ice.
If she couldn’t get back to the shore, these separating floes would eventually be blown out to sea. There — the Cycle taught — she would suffer death by starvation or thirst — if the floes did not crumble and drown her — and if killer whales did not ram their snouts through the thinning ice to reach her.
But gradually, she realized, she was working her way, floe by floe, step by step, back toward the shore. Lop-ear ran along faithfully, calling out the floes he spotted, evidently determined he would not abandon her.
At last, as she neared the landfast ice and got away from the fastest-flowing water, the swell subsided and the rolling of the floes became more bearable.
And she found herself on a hard, unyielding surface.
For a moment she stood there, unable to believe it was over, that she had reached the land. In fact, she felt giddy, so used had she become to standing on a surface that tipped and heaved beneath her. But Lop-ear’s trunk was soon over her head, touching her mouth and cooing reassurance.
With relief, she trotted away from the ice’s edge.
She turned and saw the floe that had so nearly carried her to her death. There was the anonymous hulk of distorted wood. And there, just visible as black dots on the ice, were the droppings she had made as she had circled the shrinking floe.
But now frost-smoke and the mist off the sea closed around the floe, and it was carried away to invisibility.