The wind came from the south and east, driving Catriona onward into a never-ending waste of sea, as it had done for days past and probably would do for days to come.
'How long has this storm lasted?' Bradan shook water from his hair, only for another wave to crash against Catriona's high prow and splatter him with a fresh supply of spindrift.
Sitting in the stern with her right hand fixed on the tiller, Melcorka shrugged. 'I do not know. Does it matter? If we were not here, we would be somewhere else.'
'I would prefer to be somewhere else rather than in a small boat in the middle of the Western Ocean.'
Melcorka glanced around. 'It is better to journey with hope than to arrive at disappointment,' she said. 'And as long as we are miserable in Catriona, we are alive.' She grinned. 'Would you prefer we were under the water than on top of it?'
'I would rather I had my feet on solid land,' Bradan said. 'We have seen nothing but waves for weeks now.'
Melcorka smiled. 'Oh, Bradan the Wanderer! It was you who wanted to venture out of Alba. It was you who wished to find the lands where grow the strange fruits that wash up on Alba's western coasts.'
'I know that,' Bradan agreed.
'And here we are, sailing to find your exotic lands.'
Bradan gave a rueful grin. 'Indeed. I'll keep quiet now and allow you to enjoy our pleasure cruise in the endless ocean and when we fall over the end of the earth, you will remind me that this was entirely my fault.'
'Of course I will,' Melcorka told him. She shook her head, so the hood of her travelling cloak flicked off and her long black hair tossed around madly in the gale. 'I wonder what it will be like to fall off the end of the world?'
'I spoke to a very wise old druid about that very matter once,' Bradan said seriously.
'I remember,' Melcorka said. 'That caused us all sorts of trouble.'
'There is no trouble that you cannot handle,' Bradan said. 'This druid, Abaris, told me all the wonders of the world, but alas, my mind could only retain a fraction of the information.'
'Minds are like that,' Melcorka said.
'But there is one thing I do remember,' Bradan said. He lowered his voice, but she could still hear him despite the howling of the storm. 'The world is not flat, it is round, so if a man…'
'Or a woman,' Melcorka interrupted.
'Or a woman – I was about to say that. If a man or a woman keeps going in any direction, he or she will eventually end up back where they started.'
Melcorka laughed. 'I can't see the point in that,' she said. 'What is the sense in going for a long journey, just to arrive back at your starting place?'
'For the adventure,' Bradan said, 'and for the experiences… the places you see, the different people you meet, the strange lands and cultures!'
'So why are you complaining?' Melcorka asked sweetly. She looked around. 'Here, we are surrounded by strange… water.' She laughed again. 'At least we have the adventure of the voyage.'
'What's that?' Bradan pointed ahead. 'I think we have another sort of adventure about to start.'
Melcorka peered into the storm, where great, grey-green waves rose higher than their spiralling mast, with the tops curling, spewing silver-white spindrift and then swooping down toward Catriona like some roaring monster from the deep. 'I can only see waves … No, wait… You're right, Bradan. There is something there.'
There was something behind the waves, something vast and shining; something so strange that Melcorka could not believe what she saw. 'It's a mountain of glass, right in the middle of the ocean.'
'It's moving,' Bradan said. 'It's a floating island of glass.'
'We'll try and go round it.' Melcorka struggled to push the tiller to the left, fighting the power of the wind and waves. Catriona protested against the alteration of course; with her stern no longer directly in the wind and waves, water poured in over her port quarter to rush knee-high, the length of the boat.
'She doesn't like this,' Bradan said.
'It's either this or ram into that.' Melcorka nodded toward the great island of ice that was rapidly approaching them. She pushed the tiller harder, so Catriona heeled further over and shipped even more water, which swirled around their legs.
'I don't know about us ramming into it,' Bradan said. 'I do know that it is trying to ram us. Look at the thing! It's going against the wind. I've never seen the like.'
Melcorka nodded. The massive mountain of glass was ignoring the wind as it surged toward them, its great pinnacles thrusting aside the waves in great white spumes of foam and spindrift. 'Nor have I. Maybe there is somebody on board it. It could be a type of ship up here.'
The glass mountain was closer now and much taller than Catriona's mast. It soared two hundred, three hundred feet high, whitely translucent with jagged peaks on top and a base of green-blue embedded with small pebbles.
'That's not glass,' Bradan said. 'It's ice! That is a floating mountain of ice!'
'I've never heard of that before.' Melcorka stared at the thing that came toward them. 'I did not know the sea could get that cold.'
'Nor did I.' Bradan stared at the thing. 'And it's still coming toward us at great speed.'
Waves splintered against the base of the ice mountain, sending spray and spindrift high in the air, to blow back against Catriona, splattering against the wooden hull and into the faces of Bradan and Melcorka.
'We're going to hit it!' Bradan shouted.
A wave lifted Catriona high in the air, just as the ice mountain dipped into the trough of the swell, so when the sea threw them, they landed thirty feet up the sheer ice wall.
'Hold on!' Bradan grabbed Melcorka as Catriona crashed against the solid ice. 'Careful, Mel!' They ducked as the ship heeled violently to larboard and began to slide slowly toward the sea.
'We're going back down!' Melcorka yelled. Catriona scraped down the edge of the ice, losing slices of her outer planking and landing with a mighty bang on a ledge barely broad enough to accommodate the hull. The boat swayed, nearly toppled over and righted herself, to sit precariously on the narrow shelf above the churning sea with her mast at an acute angle.
'What happens now?' Melcorka looked over the side of Catriona, shrugged and smiled at Bradan. 'I've never been in quite this position before, stuck on an ice mountain in the middle of the sea.'
'I doubt that many people have,' Bradan said. 'I've never heard of such a thing.' He returned Melcorka's smile. 'Well, we wanted new experiences, and here we are. At least we're safe here.'
'And stuck. We could stay here until this mountain melts, I suppose.'
'Or until the storm subsides. We're not too far from the surface of the sea. We can just slide Catriona down. She is the most stable ship I have ever sailed in.'
'Just settle down then,' Melcorka said. 'And wait.'
She smoothed a hand along the tiller and watched the mighty waves rise and fall. Patience was not typically one of her strongest virtues, but travelling with Bradan had matured her. Now, she sat back in the stern and allowed herself to relax amidst the howling wind and the crash of waves against the floating mountain of ice.
'We are not alone, you know,' Bradan said, some time later. 'We are being watched.'
Melcorka scanned what she could see of the horizon. 'Either you are talking about a whale under the water or a bird above, but I can see neither.' She looked at Defender, the large sword that accompanied her everywhere. 'I hope you are not referring to seals. I have seen enough seals to last me forever.' She recalled her battles with seals and selkies before they had left Scotland.
'No,' Bradan said, 'I am not referring to a seal, a whale or a bird. I am referring to a full-grown woman.'
'Oh?' Melcorka frowned. 'I can't see a ship, either.'
'She is not in a ship,' Bradan said quietly, 'she is only a few feet from you right at this minute, and she is watching everything that you do.'
This time, Melcorka's hand stroked the hilt of Defender, savouring the thrill of power that the sword always gave her. 'Where is this woman?' she asked quietly.
'Look to your left,' Bradan said.
'There is nothing there but ice.' Melcorka looked to her left and smiled again. 'And that woman sitting inside the ice.'
'I think she is dead,' Bradan said. 'At least, she looks dead to me.'
Entombed within her prison of ice, the woman sat on a carved wooden stool with her elbow on her knee and her chin cupped in her hand. Her face was a tawny copper colour, and she wore a bright green tunic decorated with the likeness of a black falcon, with a beaded band around her forehead.
Melcorka pressed her face against the ice so she could see better. The woman's eyes were open and her headband was decorated with the same engraved falcon in the centre of a white circlet. Melcorka looked directly into her eyes and knew there had been profound wisdom there once, and some deep power that she could not understand. 'Now, where did she come from, I wonder?' Melcorka mused.
'We could ask her,' Bradan suggested.
'I doubt she would tell us much. I wonder who she was and how she got inside the ice mountain?'
'I doubt we will ever know,' Bradan said. 'Perhaps there is a race of people that live inside the ice?'
'You should know. You are the man who got all the wisdom of the druids.' Melcorka looked upward as a chunk of ice the size of a human head slid down the exterior of the mountain and landed in the sea. The resulting splash showered Catriona with cold water.
'Aye, it's already beginning to melt,' Bradan said. Leaning over the gunwale, he ran his hand across the surface of the ice and showed it to Melcorka. 'See? It's wet. I think there must be a lot of ice in the north, where it is colder than here. The further south this mountain drifts, the warmer it gets and the more it will melt.'
'We may go north sometime and see your ice,' Melcorka said, 'but at present, this ocean current is taking us south and west.' She settled down. 'I am going to sleep until something happens. Good night, Bradan.' She faced the woman in the ice. 'Good night, strange woman.'
Next morning brought the sun, stronger than it had been for some days. Melcorka watched as water droplets oozed down the outside of the ice mountain, merging to form a constant stream that poured into the sea from the lip of the ledge where Catriona sat.
'Our ice island is getting smaller by the minute,' Bradan said. 'If this continues, we'll soon be back on the waves again.' He nodded to the woman in the ice. 'All three of us.'
'I still wonder who she was,' Melcorka said, 'and where she came from. I have never seen a woman of her colouring before.'
Bradan nodded. 'I have heard that there are black people and brown people and people of all sorts of colours in this world.'
Melcorka pondered that information for a moment before she replied. 'So there are green people and red people and blue people?' She shook her head. 'I don't believe a word of it. I am more interested in finding out how this woman got to be within the ice and in making sure that we don't end up the same way.'
Bradan ducked as a large chunk of ice detached itself from the side of the mountain and crashed into the sea. It floated alongside for a few moments, clunking and clinking until it spun away on some sub-current.
'This thing is melting away,' Bradan said. 'I don't think we have to worry about being frozen in.' He pushed at the ice beside him. 'We'll be able to shake hands with this lady soon.'
'Let's do just that.' Melcorka unsheathed her dirk, the long fighting knife of the Gael, and hacked into the ice. 'We might find out more about her if we meet her properly.'
'If you have a little patience, the ice will melt itself,' Bradan said.
'I've had enough of being patient.' Melcorka prised free a chunk of ice and forced a crack that extended across the face of the frozen woman. 'Stand back.' She levered the ice away and kicked the shattered remnants into the sea.
The woman fell into Melcorka's arms. Stiff and cold, she stared into nothing through almond-shaped eyes that still retained that aura of power and knowledge. Even although she was long dead, it was evident that at one time she had been an important personage.
'Who are you?' Melcorka bent to search the woman. She had a small leather pouch on a belt around her waist, which Melcorka lifted and emptied on to her rowing bench. A handful of copper trinkets clattered onto the wood, each one in the shape of a falcon with extended wings and a sharp-pointed beak. 'I am taking these,' she said. 'I don't like robbing the dead, but these might help identify you if we ever come across your family.'
'Take that circlet from her head as well,' Bradan said. 'It may help.' He viewed the corpse. 'She looks as if she was important.'
'I thought that as well.' Melcorka could not escape the power of those almond-shaped eyes.
'I wonder if she was some sort of ice-princess?' Bradan frowned. 'She must not have felt the cold at all.'
'She must have been a very hardy woman,' Melcorka said. 'I wonder how long she has been trapped in this ice mountain for?'
'We have no way of knowing,' Bradan said. 'It could have been weeks, or even months.'
'Somebody will be waiting for her to come home,' Melcorka said. 'Should we carry her in Catriona?'
'Carry her where? And for how long?' Bradan asked. 'She will smell once she thaws. We'll bury her at sea.'
'That might be best,' Melcorka agreed. 'Do you know the proper words to say?'
'I will say what I think is best,' Bradan said. 'I'm sure she won't mind what the words are.'
The woman was small in height and stocky in stature. They wrapped her in her simple tunic and then in a swathe of sailcloth, weighed at the feet with a couple of heavy boulders from their ballast.
'Goodbye, ice woman,' Melcorka said quietly. 'May you find peace.'
'May our God and your God protect you on your journey to the next world,' Bradan said, as they watched the body sink into the water. There was barely a swirl, with an escaped strand of dark hair the last thing they saw.
'We will never know who she was or where she was from.' Melcorka secreted the headband and the small bag of small copper falcons inside her cloak. 'Now, we will wait until the ice melts and then continue our journey to nothingness. Unless you have decided that you've seen enough of the ocean?'
'We're not going back. There is too much of the world to explore.' Bradan's smile lightened the mood. 'That is the end of that small adventure.'
The sudden wind ruffled Melcorka's hair and raised goose-pimples along her back. It died as soon as it had begun, leaving her slightly unsettled, although she could not say why. She shrugged, looking to the sea where the corpse had sunk. Somehow, she doubted if that small adventure had indeed finished.
'Come on, Bradan,' she said. 'Sing something cheerful to me. Sing a song of the sea or a bawdy drinking song from Fidach of the Picts.'
'I can't sing,' Bradan said. 'I've no voice at all.'
'Oh, come on. You know how much I love music.'
'You asked for it,' Bradan said and began a loud Pictish song. The ancient words swept across the waves of the cold northern sea as Melcorka thought of that mysterious woman, so lonely in her ice mountain. Yet to Melcorka, she was not quite dead; something of the expression of her eyes lingered even as the ice mountain drifted southward in the current and somewhere close by, a whale called mournfully.
They settled down in Catriona, watching the dull grey seas rising and falling beneath the light grey sky. Twice they ate and twice they slept without the sky darkening, for in these northern latitudes there was neither night nor day at that time of year. And still, the water wept from the great mountain of ice, shrinking it hour by hour.
'I wonder which will happen first,' Melcorka said. 'Will the ice mountain melt or will they reach us?' She nodded toward the flotilla of sails that thrust from the southern horizon.
'Ships.' Bradan had not noticed them.