Blaise was the first to complain.
“You’re going so fast, Aoife. I can hardly keep up,” she said at last. “I have a huge stitch, and I have shorter legs than everyone else.”
“Firstly, you are exactly the same height as Dee and she has much less stamina than you.” Aoife flung over her shoulder, trying not to snap and struggling to keep patience. She grasped wildly at the vanishing tail of self-control and continued to speak her piece. “Secondly, I have a stitch too and we’re not the only ones. Thirdly, I intensely dislike whiners, though I appreciate that you are struggling. Finally, if you haven’t noticed, if we don’t keep going we are going to be caught in the very centre of a huge Alpine thunderstorm – and that is no joke, Blaise.”
Blaise gritted her teeth and said no more, and after that, no one else dared to complain even if they had only been considering it. But Rob flung an arm around his small sister to support her, and it helped her a little.
They walked at a fast trot for another ten minutes, and as they were entering Pertisau a low growl of thunder pealed out and circled the lake in a mighty series of horrible echoes. Blaise, who was only nine and had done very well, gave a whimper, but she continued down the path, half-walking and half-running, Rob’s arm pushing her ever-onwards. Daniel jogged along after them, for he had great stores of stamina, being a cut-out long distance runner.
But Aoife was suddenly aware of a sharp cry, and she turned to see her other cousin sway on the path by the lake. She sprang backward, but someone else was quicker, and before she knew it the tall dark stranger she had met at Seespitz had caught Delia and was steadying her, muttering something in German.
“Dee!” cried Aoife, coming to his aid. “Don’t faint, Delia. Please don’t. Not now.”
But the storm was raging furiously by now where they had lunched only the previous day, and poor bewildered Delia couldn’t distinguish between the German and English, sprayed on her from both sides.
“Can you walk?” Aoife asked, and in reply the stranger swung the small girl into his arms and looked expectantly at her.
Aoife, realising that she must play guide for the greater good of her cousin, set off for the chalet. The others were well ahead by this time, but Aoife could not see any sign of them in the torrential rain that had suddenly appeared from nowhere. The stranger shrugged his jacket from his arms and flipped it to Aoife, hunching his shirt-clad shoulders over his burden to keep it relatively dry. Then he put his head down and followed where Aoife led, and a couple of minutes later they burst in through the door where Daniel was keeping an anxious eye out for them.
As soon as they got in Rob went out to get the car and fetch the others, who had not arrived yet. The stranger’s first action was to lay Delia down on the sofa, where she lay still – but not dead, merely unconscious.
“Blaise is in a hot shower, and Apollo is in his basket – he shook himself under the porch first – and Rob’s gone to fetch the others,” Daniel said. “Hey, Aoife – are you alright?”
He had reason to ask, for his cousin was trembling violently from the shock of Delia’s exploit and her fear of the storm, terrified by the great thunderous growls which shook the very foundations of the chalet.
Aoife saw his anxiety, and pulled herself together. “I’m fine, thanks, Dan,” she said with a shaky smile. She bent over the limp figure of her cousin for a moment. “She’s just unconscious, thank God,” she said, clutching at her heart. “I’ll get her to bed. Maybe a bath would be the best idea. Hang this man’s jacket up please, Dan. I’m sorry,” she said to the stranger, well aware that he would not understand, “but I don’t know your name, and I can’t speak much German.”
“Vinzent,” the stranger replied with perfect understanding and an amused smile.