Red’s Final Race
At the top of the stairs, Sham paused. There was another large door, this time a wooden one, and already, from beyond it, there were sounds that made his heart beat faster. The door was not closed, and Sham pushed it open, to find himself in the corridor along which he had – not many weeks ago – walked to his classroom with his new friends. The corridor itself was empty, and, for a moment, it was as if he heard their laughing voices, and then the real sounds hit him: his ears were assaulted by the echo of knives clashing, of screaming and shouting, and of a strange whizzing noise that he couldn’t place.
As he crept to the front door, breathing heavily, one hand to his still aching head, he peered out at the front of the school where the remains of the icicles still lay on the snow like broken glass. Night had fallen while he was unconscious, and the only light came from the snow. Again, he seemed to do a double take: to his right, in the playground, where he had once seen children playing together in the sunshine, supervised by Miss Bell, he now took in a group of Suits, fighting against what he assumed to be a group of Resisters, and Miss Bell was one of them. Now she was dressed all in reindeer skins, and brandishing her own Inuit knife, which she was using like a fencing sabre that he had once seen on the versatelly – and he was amazed at her skill. To Sham’s horror, around the fighting group, there were several bodies lying on the ground, not moving.
In front of Sham was the school gate, and beyond it was a blur of noise and movement, but Sham found it hard to see who was who out there in the gathering darkness.
Suddenly, appearing from his left, he spotted Red and Holly, racing towards the gate, and not far behind marched Mr Noel, his white furs gleaming, a harpoon in his hand, shouting orders to several Suits around him. As Sham watched, Mr Noel aimed and hurled the harpoon, and now Sham understood what the whizzing sound was. The line went taut as the harpoon plunged into a tree by the gate, missing Red by inches. Mr Noel ripped it free and pulled it back.
“The sleighs! Bring the sleighs!” he yelled to his followers, before they all headed out of the gate in pursuit of Red and Holly.
Feeling that his legs were going to give way from terror, Sham stumbled after them. He saw Mr Noel and his followers suddenly veer off to the left, towards a group of waiting sleighs, where they were met by a group of Resisters heading out of the bushes, knives in their hands; his eyes scoured the darkness for Red and Holly, and then he heard Red shouting in some other language, followed by the answering barking of the huskies. They had gone to the right. As Sham skidded down the snowy hill, convinced that a harpoon was going to enter his back at any moment, the faithful dogs, already harnessed to the sleigh, came pounding up towards him, barking noisily.
“In!” shouted Red, and Holly fell into the sleigh. As Red lifted the harness, he caught sight of Sham lurching towards them, and paused for just long enough to allow him to fall in too.
“Shha! Shha!” Red yelled and yanked the harness to make the dogs turn, down the hill, away from the school. Within moments, it seemed, they were whizzing past Chestnut Avenue and racing out of the town.
The adrenalin rushing through Sham’s own body had kept him warm, but the wind was icy cold in his face. Although Red was clearly irritated, Holly was forcing a coat on to her brother, covering up his frozen arms, and then she came back and looked at Sham, her hair blowing upwards in frozen spikes.
“You came with us!” she whispered to Sham. A rare smile crossed her face. “Are you all right? It was amazin’, what you did. When that piece of ice fell on your ‘ead, I thought you’d ‘ad it! And then The Suits took you away…”
Sham gave her a weak smile, unable to answer anything right now. He was struggling to breathe after the race to the sleigh, and his head was hurting again. Seeing his discomfort, Holly began pulling out hats from under the seats. The sleigh seemed to have a never-ending supply of reindeer skins, and Sham felt a huge relief as he pulled the hat down over his frozen ears.
“What happened to Amaryllis?” he managed to whisper.
Holly shook her head. “Who cares?” she said bluntly. “Ran away, I guess. Back to ‘er vixin’ flowers! Turns out Miss Bell was more of a fighter than ‘er!”
As they talked, the dogs were running their hearts out, and Red was looking over his shoulder constantly, to see if they were being followed. A few minutes later, a road branched off to the left, and Red took it, down towards the sea.
Sham looked back at the clear trail they had left.
“I know,” said Holly. “And there won’t be no more snow to cover the tracks.”
“But why are we coming this way?” croaked Sham as loudly as he could.
“Getting to the sea as quickly as possible,” called back Red. “We want them to follow our tracks – it’s the best way to trap them.”
Sham wondered if it would be a trap for them too, especially if everything was starting to melt, but he didn’t say so.
“’Ere – we’ve still got some of the brandy Rudy gave us on the way,” said Holly, passing a flask to Sham. “’Elp keep you warm!”
Gratefully, Sham took the flask, realising that he was shaking, not only with cold, but with shock and fear, and he took a gulp of the fiery liquid, before handing it back to Holly. Instead of drinking from it herself, she passed it to Red, who took several large gulps.
Holly continued talking in a low voice to Sham.
“Did yer see? So many Resisters? It’s ‘appenin’ all over the UKK – after Red’s message about Mrs Allbright, it’s like they all just came out! We did it, Sham, we really did it!”
The faithful huskies kept running steadily, their breathing noisy, their feet hardly seeming to touch the surface of the snow, and there didn’t seem to be anyone following yet. Red relaxed his grip on the harness slightly, looked over his shoulder, and put out one hand to Holly. She knew immediately what he wanted, and quickly passed him a hat which he shoved on his head. Below it, his eyes still burned with the same fire, and his mouth, above the now frosted beard, was grim and determined.
Before long, they were running close to the sea and Red was weaving his way down to the coast, avoiding the cliffs. Here the wind was much stronger and the fallen snow seemed to be blowing directly off the frozen sea into their faces. And now, Red pulled the sleigh to a halt and allowed the huskies to take a break. They all stepped off the sleigh to stretch their legs. It was impossible to see far into the distance, but as there was no sound of waves breaking, Sham assumed that the water was ice for a long way out. All he could hear was the wheezing of the dogs, getting their breath back. Red was looking up at the dark sky. As Sham followed his gaze, he realised that there were breaks in the clouds, and that he could see the occasional star gleaming, like a promise, beyond.
“Listen,” said Red. “No more humming.”
Then he was silent, and they all listened. After so many weeks with a constant hum above them, it was eerie to hear nothing but the dogs panting. Red took his torch out of his pocket, stepped away from the sleigh and shone its powerful beams across the sea. It was a white wilderness of snow and ice.
“Good,” he said briskly. “We move on to the ice now.”
Sham noticed that he was limping. Unapproachable though he was, Sham couldn’t help admiring Holly’s brother. As far as he was aware, Red hadn’t slept for two days, and yet he was still going. He thought about the young man in the photo – Mr Berry, Holly and Red’s father, who must have been killed when Red was about Sham’s age. Clearly, Red needed his hard shell to enable him just to carry on.
“D’you want me to steer the huskies for a while?” Sham asked. “I reckon I could do it.”
Red shook his head, but he didn’t seem to be really listening to Sham. He clicked off the torch.
“Hush!” he said suddenly to the dogs, who were milling around, still in their harness, but now yelping and growling at each other. They immediately fell silent, and then Sham realised that he was hearing other dogs, not far behind. Terror took hold of him again. Without another word, he and Holly jumped back into the sleigh. Red jumped back on to the driver’s seat and silently took the harness in both hands.
“SShha!” he hissed, and the dogs took off across the frozen sea.
Holly bit her lip and looked over the side of the sleigh, trying to judge the thickness of the ice. At the moment, it felt just like being on dry land. As Sham reached down to adjust his grip on the sleigh, his fingers found an ice-melter. He lifted it and stared at it for a moment and then switched it on, his mouth dry at the thought of using it again.
The huskies raced onwards across the ice, but there was no doubt about the sleighs behind them now.
“Must be more than one,” hissed Holly, her face as white as the ice. “And our dogs are tired.”
“Keep watch behind!” shouted Red, “And tell me when you see them!”
Holly and Sham both stared backwards, away from the wind, straining their eyes to see any other sleighs. But it was Sham who saw them first – he caught a glimpse of white dogs, and they were over to his left.
“On the left,” he shouted, and then as Red veered in that direction, he suddenly realised that he had given the wrong instruction, because he was facing the wrong way.
“No – sorry – to your right!” he yelled, but Red had already spotted it and pulled away again. For a moment, Sham recognised Mr Noel’s face and the shape of others behind him. Mr Noel roared and the dogs started pulling towards them.
“On the other side too!” screamed Holly, pointing out to her right, where another sleigh was gaining on them through the blizzard.
Red shouted one word to the dogs, and they seemed to accelerate. Sham wouldn’t have believed it possible, but they were going faster than ever. The other sleighs instantly fell back and seemed to vanish.
“Take the harness!” yelled Red to Holly, who nodded and joined him on the front seat. “Keep going that way!” he shouted before jumping back into the sleigh with Sham.
Then: “Give me the ice-melter,” he said, and his voice was quite calm. He looked into Sham’s eyes, and for a moment they seemed to be in a silent world, with no-one else around. There was something about those determined blue eyes that frightened Sham.
“The huskies are nearly exhausted,” said Red matter-of-factly, taking the ice-melter in his hand. Its point was red-hot, and would soon be white. “We have only one chance to be rid of them all, and you and Holly are going to have to go on while I stay and finish this.”
Sham shook his head fiercely. “No!” he hissed. “One weapon isn’t going to stop them all.”
“Use it right, and one weapon is all you need,” said Red, with a grim smile.
“But –“ began Sham. Red interrupted.
“You must tell Holly to keep going, whatever happens.”
He gripped the ice-melter tightly in his right hand and looked into Sham’s eyes again.
“Take care of her, Sham,” he said, and then tucked his left arm across his body and rolled off the sleigh. Sham was filled with horror. Holly realised almost at once what her brother had done and screamed with fear. The dogs, uncertain what to do, gradually slowed down and then stopped altogether.
“We have to keep going!” yelled Sham. “Red said!”
But Holly was staring back into the snow and Sham turned too. What he saw chilled him to the bone.
The dim, eerie snow-light showed up Red and not two, not three, but four sleighs approaching him from behind. He had lost his hat, but had somehow got straight to his feet again, and was standing, legs apart, his hair sticking up, the white-hot ice-melter held up in his right hand.
And he was singing, hoarsely and tunelessly. The words drifted back towards them as the Krissmas Party sleighs slowed and then stopped altogether, as if in disbelief. Some were pointing harpoons at him, but instead of shooting they were listening to him. The song was the one they had all so recently heard in the control room, but with new lyrics that it took them a moment to notice:
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
Since we’ve no place to go,
Down you go, down you go –
And then he roared out the final line –
“DOWN YOU GO!” and plunged the ice-melter into the ice in front of him.
Holly and Sham were transfixed by the scene, as the ice under Red gave a deafening cracking sound, and the cracks began to run backwards towards the Krissmas Party sleighs. They started hurling their harpoons, but their shots were flying in all directions, and as they realised what was happening, the drivers tried to turn the sleighs and go back the way they had come. Sham could hear Mr Noel’s voice shouting hoarsely above the rest. But they were too late. The dogs and the sleighs were sliding, and within seconds, to an accompaniment of barking and screaming, the ice opened up its frozen graves and let them all in.
Red himself, still gripping the ice-melter, was on a piece of ice that was tipping, and as he tried to balance, a harpoon, fired in desperation by one of The Suits as they fell, found him. It hit his shoulder, the line pulled tight and he was yanked off his fragile perch in one swift movement. One second he was there, and the next he was gone, under the ice.
“NOOOO!” screamed Holly, trying to climb out of the sleigh. Sham somehow managed to grab her arm and keep hold of it, even as she twisted and pulled at his hand. Then he reached for the harness with the other hand, shouting “Sshaa! Sshaa!” to the huskies as he had heard Red do. The dogs, having heard their master singing and the dogs from the other sleighs barking, seemed confused and only a couple of them obeyed. But when the faithful lead husky started to move, the others followed. The sleigh began to move slowly forwards, and then picked up speed.
Trying to remember what Red had said, though his eyes were practically blinded by tears, Sham steered to the right, back towards the land. The dogs seemed to have taken charge, and were racing as fast as they could away from the terrifying scene. All around them, the ice was breaking up, and Sham expected to slip into the sea at any moment, but as they neared the land, the ice thickened, and the sounds of cracking grew fainter.
Holly was lying on the floor of the sleigh, sobbing. There was nothing Sham could do for her at the moment, except keep going. And in his head, he kept hearing the altered words of the Krissmas song, changed forever in his own mind: “Since you’ve no place to go, down you go, down you go, DOWN YOU GO!”
As his mind reeled, his resolution hardened. He pulled on the harness to steer the dogs more to the left and slow them down now that they were off the ice, and his tears froze on his face. Shortly, Sham glanced back to see that Holly had cried herself to sleep. And he knew then that, for her sake, he would carry on. Just like the first Resister – his grandfather – Red had given his life to save others, and it was up to him to make sure that he had not done it for nothing. Mr Noel was dead. The Cloud Assemblers were brought down. By now, perhaps, the other Suits were being defeated all over the country. And he had one job left to do. He hoped that, somehow, his grandfather was still guiding him, just as he was guiding the huskies. The ice raced away beneath them, and Sham carried the sleeping Holly on to safety.