The girl looked too small to be hiking on her own.
Beitris knew that many children started hillwalking early, exploring the dips and peaks of the Cairngorms and the Trossachs in small packs, acting as their own guardians. But this girl was alone, not in a pack, not surrounded by the whoops and hollers that meant safety as much as entertainment. And though she may have found her way back to the path if this were Arthur’s Seat or Ben A’an, Ben Nevis was hardly a hill.
“Hello?” called Beitris.
The little girl did not respond. She hugged her body, hugged her puffy coat. One of her gloves was missing.
Children could hike Ben Nevis. But not alone. And not during the winter.
The girl was a little way off the path. Beitris slid down to her. She saw the flash of a bright pink hat as the girl’s head shot up when Beitris skid on some loose icy stones, but the girl did not know where to look with her eyes squeezed shut. Her eyelashes were white with frost, and Beitris wondered if they had frozen together.
“Let’s get you back to the path.”
Beitris put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. The girl did not respond, but she did move. She trembled, the movement shaking flakes of snow from her shoulders. Beitris realized it had begun to snow again, and she frowned at the sky. She would be fine, she knew her way all over Ben Nevis, but no parents should have taken their daughter hiking on the mountain if it was going to snow. The snow covered the gorges, making cliffs look like easy shortcuts, and there was no time to scream before the light powder layer gave way to empty air.
Beitris stopped at the edge of the path. The new layer of snow was masking any sign of past travelers, any clue as to whether people had marched up the path abandoning their slow ward, or if they were down below, waiting, fretting. Beitris grabbed the girl’s hand.
It felt like ice.
She looked at the fingers interlacing with hers, and they were already pale blue, and where they gripped her, pure white. Her hair was the same white now, dusted snow white, and her lips matched the blue tint of her hand. She could have been an ice princess. Beitris shivered, though she was used to the weather. This girl could have been a little fairy, and it was not unbelievable, not up here. Not when the snow danced as it fell, whirling in tight circles and then breaking into pairs, hugging trees and ground and eyelashes and melting against skin like the softest kiss. But not melting against skin so cold. There, it clung, desperate, needy. There, it waited, patient, for the skin to lose all heat and turn to ice.
Beitris shook her head. This girl was not an ice princess, not a fairy. She was a lost daughter and she needed to return home.
It felt wrong to go down when she was so near the top, so near that sense of accomplishment, but she was sure that the girl’s parents were waiting below, that their child had run past them, and that they had not abandoned her. Beitris had seen other children run wild on the path, run up, up, up towards the top, and she understood the urge. She guided the little girl down the path, holding her hand steady, guiding with her other hand on the back of the puffy coat. Soon there were panicked voices, yelling at each other, like that would help, like that would bring their daughter back any faster.
The little girl gasped, her head turning towards the voices, and now her hand was not so cold. Now the snow did not grip her so forcefully. She eased out of Beitris’s grasp, and her fingers were no longer tinged blue, and the ice on her lashes was starting to melt, and she found her voice and began to cry as she ran to her parents.
Beitris let her go. It was right, but it still hurt. She reached out an icy cold hand, and watched the snow dance around her palm, and thanked Ben Nevis, even if she did not accept the gift. It would have taken only a few more minutes for the mountain to claim the child for Beitris, but the girl just looked too small to be hiking on her own. She had a family that wanted her, needed her.
And Beitris had her own family waiting for her at the top of the mountain. She had her own children that she graciously accepted, those boys and girls who whooped and hollered their way to her, unwatched, left alone, and alone meant unwanted, and unwanted meant hers. They may have acted wild, but they needed a guardian. She was happy to guard them; every ice prince and princess that came to her, every person who fell through the deceiving powder of snow without a cry, every child that ran up the mountain and never found their way back down.