IT WAS MIND-NUMBINGLY COLD.
Although Daníel was well bundled up in layer upon layer of wool, with a thick down jacket over the top, it didn't help: the cold still found its way inside, piercing him to the bone.
He wondered if his travelling companions were suffering similar torments but didn't dare ask in case it made him sound weak, just kept his head down and ploughed on, buffeted by the wind and driving snow. He couldn't see the surrounding landscape, couldn't tell what kind of terrain they were crossing; his whole world was reduced to a swirling whiteness and the vague shapes of figures moving ahead.
He had lost track of the time but it felt as if they had been walking for hours since the storm blew up, although probably it had been closer to an hour. No one had said anything for a while now. They were all doing their best to keep going, trying to stick close together and follow Ármann's lead. Since he knew the area better than any of them, all they could do was trust him when he said there was an old hut 'not too far away'.
The way he put it didn't exactly inspire confidence.
Despite growing up in Iceland, Daníel had been living in Britain for a number of years, first as a student at drama school, then trying to make a living on the stage.
This reunion trip with his old friends had been on the cards for a while. Ármann had offered to organize it, then, at the last minute, suggested they swap their planned visit to a holiday cottage in the south-west, within easy reach of Reykjavík, for a ptarmigan hunt in the remote highlands on the other side of the country instead. He assured them that he'd been on countless game-shooting trips in the eastern highlands and that there could be few better ways of cementing their friendship. When the message arrived, Daníel had been so busy that he simply hadn't had time to raise any objections. He didn't have a gun licence but Ármann had offered to teach him to shoot. 'There'll be no one there to see us, so you'll get a chance to bag a few birds, don't you worry.'
But as soon as they made their first foray onto the moors, everything had gone wrong.
They didn't even have their luggage with them, only provisions for that day, though they had their shotguns, of course, since that was the whole point of the exercise. Daníel had suggested leaving the guns somewhere to lighten their load and coming back for them later, but this had not gone down well.
He tried to soldier on, reminding himself that he must on no account lose his concentration. There was a tacit agreement among them to put their faith in Ármann and trust that he would get them to shelter.
Sure, Daníel was freezing, but hopefully the worst of the chill would be banished once he was safely indoors, out of the elements. He tried not to dwell on the thought that they didn't even have sleeping bags with them, and that the wretched hut they were trying to reach apparently didn't have any form of heating. No electricity; no way of getting warm. Still, at least it would provide some shelter.
As if the cold wasn't bad enough, deep down the fear was growing that they were lost; that Ármann's sense of direction wasn't all it was cracked up to be. If this turned out to be true, Daníel wouldn't just be worried, he'd be scared to death. There was no chance of their finding their way back to the lodge. If the storm continued with the same violence, they would have no choice but to stop somewhere and wait it out, but without tents or sleeping bags there was a danger they might freeze.
He couldn't see a bloody thing.
Of course, Daníel remembered storms from his youth, but nothing like this, and his years in Britain's gentler climate had softened the memories, making him forget what the cold was really like. The blizzard they were experiencing now was more brutal than he would have believed possible. And it seemed incomprehensible to him that it could be so dark in the midst of all this whirling whiteness. Could the early November dusk have fallen already? Surely they hadn't been out here that long?
He was terrified he would lose sight of the person immediately in front of him. They were walking in more or less single file, with him bringing up the rear, and it was taking all his strength to keep up. He knew that the others were more experienced at coping with conditions like these, or at least Ármann and Helena were. They had both been eager for the hunt; not just eager but excited. Daníel had never shot a ptarmigan and now it didn't look as if the weather gods were going to give him the chance even to see one; not today, at any rate. He wasn't actually sure he'd ever tasted ptarmigan. When he was younger, perhaps.
All of a sudden, he noticed that Helena, who was second to last in the line, had stopped just in front of him. Then Daníel saw through the thickly falling flakes that the others had come to a halt. Had something happened?
Ármann called back to them but Daníel couldn't hear through his woollen hat and the thick hood of his down jacket.