Jay gave one last look to the guide's car before she pushed her bike over to Sophie's side. They stood at the intersection of the main highway, S25, and an ancient stone road of possible Roman origins that headed into the valley off to their right. Bardonecchia was behind them, and according to Lestovru, considerable risk lay ahead of them. He had given them a brief lecture on the danger of travel through mountainous regions; he mentioned the possibility of sudden changes in the weather, of avalanches and flash floods, of dangerous animals, and of the difficulty of getting quick medical attention once they were well into the mountains, should it prove necessary. He seemed almost to hope that his dire warnings would convince Jay and Sophie to back down, but the only effect he had was to make Jay like him less than she had. She knew the dangers. She still wanted to go to Glenraven.
Lestovru used English once he discovered Sophie spoke no French. His English was accented, but then, Jay realized, his French had been, too. She found herself wondering what his first language had been. He told them, "You will follow behind me. Some portions of this ride are difficult, and we will have several traverses, but you must at no time permit yourselves to become separated from each other or from me; once separated, all dangers become greater."
They took off on the maybe-Roman road, and immediately found themselves cycling around missing stones, fallen pavement, and clumps of weed and grass that had overgrown the ancient highway. Jayjay could almost believe no one had trodden that road since Christopher Columbus.
At one of the few relatively smooth places, Sophie dropped back to Jay's side. "I don't like our guide."
"I don't like him, either." Jayjay noted a bad bit of pavement and jumped it. "But specifically what don't you like?"
"He seemed too interested in the amount of money I was carrying. He didn't say anything, but he sure looked. I don't like the idea of riding into the mountains with just the two of us and this man we don't know from Adam, when neither one of us has a weapon."
Jayjay nodded grimly. International travel made carrying even such defensive weapons as pepper gas a nightmare, so neither Jay nor Sophie carried anything more lethal than a bicycle wrench. "Not much we can do but watch him."
Sophie glanced quickly at Jay. "Fat lot of good that will do us if he's carrying a gun."
"He was certified by CAI. They're reputable. If they say we can trust him, I think we can."
Sophie didn't look mollified. "Maybe. Be a pity if they're wrong, though."
"He doesn't seem much like a guide, does he?" Jayjay made the comment because as soon as Lestovru finished warning them about all the dangers they faced in going through the mountain pass, he lapsed into silence. Sophie had asked him the origin of the road and Jay had wondered aloud about a couple of lovely plants that were growing by the side of it. He'd ignored those questions with a shrug of his narrow shoulders. Neither did he make any attempt to identify sites of interest along their route, though many existed. The ruin of some great stone tower squatted atop a knoll off to the right, and a gorgeous mountain stream chuckled in its bed on their left. The meadows through which the road wound were full of flowers, most of them foreign to Jayjay's eyes. Unfamiliar birds of all sorts flew by, and a lumbering marmot-looking beast sat up on its haunches and watched them pass. Jay would have loved to know the names of those creatures and flowers, but after Lestovru brushed off her first questions, she wasn't enthusiastic about asking more. Instead, he pushed their pace hard, concentrating on making progress, and beneath them the road rose steadily uphill in a moderate grade.
Jay lost interest in talking; she was in shape but between the thin mountain air and the hard work of pedaling and dodging potholes, she had little energy left to discuss things with Sophie. When the road narrowed, the three of them ended up riding single file; then no one said anything at all.
They traveled at an uncomfortably quick pace for perhaps an hour. Then Lestovru called a halt. He rested one foot on the ground and pointed ahead. "We approach the uphill now. You will perhaps wish to walk your bicycles?"
Uphill, Jay thought. What does he call what we've been doing? "We'll ride," Jay told him. "We can do it." She loathed the idea of showing weakness in front of the man. She didn't want him to connect the thoughts of her and weakness in any way. She was already uncomfortable about the calculating look he'd given the little hoard of coins she tucked into her hidden money belt.
The look he gave her said as clearly as words, I don't think you can do it, but he nodded. "Very well."
Jay gave the road ahead a harder look. The valley dead-ended as the hips of two mountains met, and the road went into a series of switchbacks to rise over the higher ground between them so that it looked like a snake in convulsions. Jay tried self-motivation; she told herself that her daily bike rides and the walking and light weight lifting she did to keep in shape would be enough to get her over those switchbacks. I can do this, she thought.
Sophie looked less certain. "We need a rest," she told Lestovru.
Jayjay glanced at her friend. She wasn't breathing any harder than Jay, and she didn't look particularly tired. Well, nowadays Sophie always seemed to be a little tired. Jay got off her bike and pushed it over beside Sophie, and the two of them sat down on the side of the road.
"What's wrong?" Jay asked her.
This time the problem wasn't tiredness. "We need to have a plan in case he pulls a gun on us," she said.
"We rush him together. With any luck, he'll only be able to kill one of us before the other one has had time to disarm him." Jay grinned when she said it, and for a miracle, Sophie smiled back at her.
The unspoken question hung between them: should they turn back? The situation felt wrong to both of them, and perhaps they could look around and find another guide to take them to Glenraven. Or they could spend the rest of the vacation in Italy. Or they could go home. If either one of them backed out, they were both going to have to; that fact hung in the air as well.
The question remained unspoken. Sophie said, "I guess we'll take our chances. If he kills us, the names of those intrepid explorers Sophie Ann Cortiss and Julie Jean Bennington Pfiester Tremont Smith will go down in history, right?" Sophie glanced sidelong at her, a wry half-smile on her lips.
The list of names hit Jay like a gut punch; she laughed, but the laughter was strained, and she caught the change of expression on Sophie's face that told her Sophie hadn't missed the reaction either.
They grabbed their bikes and waved to the guide that they were ready. He nodded and led off.
They struggled up one steep incline, caught their breath on the switchback, and started up again. Jay felt sweat popping out in beads on her forehead even though the air was quite cool. She thought, third time was supposed to be a charm. Steven was supposed to be the husband who made me forget the others; he was supposed to be the friend I got to live with. But he wasn't, and I know that now, so why am I dealing with it like this? She started to feel a stitch in her side, and the muscles in her legs burned. I'm running away when I should be sitting down with a lawyer and wrapping up the relationship. I should be holding my head up and going on with my life. This is running. This is hiding. Why am I doing this?
The switchbacks followed each other in a seemingly endless series; she found herself wondering how the writers of the Glenraven guide could have ever considered the route into the country a "pass." They weren't riding through a pass. They were mountain climbing on wheels.
When she thought of Glenraven, though, the tingle of excitement still fluttered in her gut.
Lestovru pedaled upward, keeping his lead and managing to look like he was riding across flatland. Jayjay loathed him for that.
They rounded another switchback. Ahead, Sophie groaned and gasped, "How much further?"
"We are nearer," Lestovru called back.
Nearer. That was vague.
The air grew colder, and the breeze became stiffer and more of an obstacle in its own right. They weren't high enough to suffer from lack of oxygen due to the thinning atmosphere. Yet.
Jayjay reached her lowest gear and still struggled, making creeping progress; she wished she had another gear or two below first.
How much longer can this bloody road go on? she wondered.
Then the road hit a plateau, and immediately took a sharp jag left and disappeared into a hole in the sheer stone face of a mountain.
"The lamps, please," Lestovru said. He was short of breath, but not as severely as either Sophie or Jayjay. He didn't smile at all, or congratulate them for reaching the top as most guides would have done. After his other failings, Jayjay was curious about precisely what qualifications he presented to have convinced someone to certify him as a guide for this region.
They switched on the bike headlights but stood for another moment, resting.
Jay began to breathe easier.
"Now, please," Lestovru said. "We still have some distance, and we don't want to arrive late."
Late? Late for what?
He slipped onto his bike saddle and took off into the tunnel. Sophie went next, and Jayjay followed, trying to remember any mention of a tunnel in the Fodor's. Her guidebook had said something about the road to Glenraven being in poor repair, but the book hadn't mentioned levitating on bicycles up cliff faces, and even with concentration, she recalled nothing about a tunnel. She hoped the writers of the guide hadn't forgotten other equally significant details.
The tunnel rose gradually and curved to the right. The gentle incline was still punishing after the mountain road. They quickly left any sign of daylight behind them. The inside of the mountain was warmer than pedaling up the outside of it had been, but certainly not warm. Jay guessed the temperature at about fifty-five degrees.
In front, Lestovru's light bobbled from side to side as he dodged obstacles on the tunnel floor. He had plenty of stamina, but he didn't ride the bicycle particularly well. To Jay that seemed as ominous a sign as his complete uninterest in the details of the local terrain; he had to be good at something to get a job as a guide, but she couldn't see any area in which he even met minimal expectations. So who was he? A thief? This seemed a hellish lot of work for the little money the two of them carried. Granted, if he wanted to rob them, the tunnel seemed to offer a nice location for it. He could leave their bodies lying in the darkness and it might be years before someone tripped over the skeletons. The dampness and the pervasive chill in the air added atmosphere to such thoughts; the flicker of the bicycle headlights along the rough-hewn stone walls and the grotesque shadows that darted ahead of them like madly pedaling demons began to oppress her spirit. She felt as if the mountain had swallowed her; even though she traveled uphill, she couldn't shake the sensation that she was sinking into the eternal blackness of the earth's stony mantle, never to see the light of day again.
Lestovru made a sharp right turn, and Jay heard the sound of tires swishing through a puddle. Sophie followed, and for a moment she felt alone, abandoned, as if she were in one of those nightmares where she ran endlessly, and never got anywhere. Then she rounded the corner and got their lights in sight again, and the oppressive solitude lightened.
But not much. They went around two more corners--a left and a right--and suddenly she realized one of those had been an intersection. The tunnel branched. Unmarked, it branched. She wondered if she had missed other branches because she hadn't been looking for them. She imagined lurid scenarios of the three travelers riding on and on, while their lamplight grew weaker and yellower, until one by one the lanterns went out and she and Sophie and the unpleasant, taciturn Lestovru were left listening to the echoes of their own breathing and the maddening drip of water from the walls.
She tried to keep track of the time that passed; in the darkness, minutes stretched long and longer. They had been in the tunnel half an hour, she thought, trying not to let herself exaggerate, though it seemed half a day. She couldn't see her watch; the sleeve of her jacket covered it, and anyway, last in line as she was, she didn't have enough light to read the dial. But she wished she could. The longer the darkness persisted, the more certain she became that something had gone wrong; that the three of them had gotten off the path and were wandering through some minotaurian labyrinth.
Then Lestovru turned at another branch, and Sophie, too, moved out of sight. Jay heard her squeak; Sophie wasn't much of a squeaker in normal circumstances. Jay slowed and peered around the corner and down the branch before following. She saw Lestovru. She saw Sophie. No danger. No disasters. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Shrugging, she followed, and instantly her stomach felt like it had been turned simultaneously inside out and upside down. She gasped, started to fall forward over the edge of a cliff she couldn't see, and then both the queasiness and the dizziness passed, and she felt fine.
Sophie turned another corner. Her delighted, "Daylight!" echoed back through the tunnel, and Jayjay started; her attention snapped forward. She pumped the pedals to catch up, and as she went around that last curve, she saw ahead the first glimmer of light on a wall that was not cast by a headlight.
Jay murmured, "Oh, thank God!" and began to pump faster. Sophie already raced toward the exit. Even Lestovru was not immune to the draw of daylight; his pace picked up as well. The demon cyclists on the walls seemed to be hurrying to outstrip the light that devoured them; the image struck Jayjay with its air of futility, and then the sunlight at the tunnel mouth threw the shadows backward where she didn't have to see them, and Lestovru and Sophie and she burst out of the tunnel onto an overlook that clung to the side of the mountain through which they'd ridden.
They braked hard. All three sets of bike brakes squealed in unison.
Jayjay parked her bike and found a boulder at the edge of the overlook, and climbed onto it. Below her lay a vast green valley, dotted with the sapphire of glistening lakes; with the velvet rough of two great, uncut forests; with ethereal spires of impossibly tall, delicate castles that sat on hills and by rivers and on top of little mountains, all with tiny picture-book towns nestled inside their sprawling bailey walls. The whole, ringed by the greater wall of the Alps, looked like it had been lifted in one piece from a gentler terrain and tucked into this out-of-the-way nook for safekeeping. Jay thought she could willingly lose herself in that perfect miniature of a world.
The photo on the cover of Fodor's didn't do it justice.
Sophie climbed out onto the rock beside her. "Incredible," she whispered. "I can't quite believe it's here."
The sun beat down hot on Jayjay's face and the chill breeze blew against her skin, so that she was both hot and cold at once; the feeling was wonderful. She tingled and her heart raced with excitement. Come, the place whispered to her. She'd been waiting all her life to find herself in a fairy tale, and there it lay, before her. It tugged at her far more strongly than it had from a third of a world away. Here, an eager voice promised, here you will find what you've been waiting for.
What is that? she wondered. What have I been waiting for? She had only part of an answer.
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