Above there was only the unmoving clouds, preserved mid-maelstrom. She was close enough now to see the eye of that frozen storm, which the corpse of the elder tree strained to reach with the tips of its tallest branches.
In the silence Elm became aware of the sound of her own breathing. It reminded her of the reindeer herders from the tundra and the hollow whistling of that cave mouth. She stirred, shook her head clear, and wrenched an ice axe from her pack.
The owls watched the woman writhe her way up cracked stone flesh. The elder tree’s root formed a jagged cliff which refused her axe, the surface like charred diamond, and so hers was a prying, swaying ascent that left no record. When she slipped and swung, feet dangling, by the handle of her stuck axe, there was no dust or loose stones to scatter, just her sweat and the snow her furs still carried. She clambered, a pale scratch in a charcoal painting. At last the root’s slope became gentle enough to lean into, and then to walk on, and from its peak, panting, Elm saw the owls.
They nested in the sawblade-perfect cracks where the roots had snapped as they petrified. They settled on the heights of the tallest coils. They nestled in the deep trenches where the wood had interlocked. Their eyes peered from hollows. Their feathers made detritus in the valleys.