She reached the top of the ridge, and looked over the sharp rocky edge, the hills spread out beneath her. She felt the familiar glow of satisfaction that she always felt at this point in the walk. Despite the many times she had come this way, she was always happy to get to this point. Even getting to the top failed to thrill her in the same way as the sudden undressing of the hidden landscape as she came up the ridge to the scarp, the rocky edge dropping away as she approached and the miles of rocky rolling hills revealed before her. To recharge her batteries and lift the grizzles of daily life from her shoulders, all she had to do was come here. Alone.
A rattle of stones and mud behind her reminded her that she wasn't. She dragged her eyes from the scenery, and turned to stare at the panting body dragging itself up the last few yards.
"You've stopped. Thank God for that. I thought I'd lost you, galloping ahead like that."
"If only" she thought.
"Of course not!", she said, almost telling him how much she liked this spot and that she loved being here alone, but stopping herself as she realised the sacrilege of despoiling this magic place.
"We'll rest here for five minutes, and then get on to the top. It's only another half a mile. We'll have lunch there."
With a well practised movement she swung the rucksack off her shoulder and pulled out her water bottle, all in one flowing gesture. Standing by the edge, taking a few sips from the bottle, she studied her companion shaking the straps off his arms and slumping onto the ground. He was much like many of the others. At the bottom of the mountain they were full of themselves, suburban climbing skills spilling out of their mouths and rucksacks, ancient walking experience, honed by years of dinner table chat, carefully polished for the holiday, new boots bought the day before from the overpriced climbing shop in the valley. She knew that some of them signed up with her just because of her shapely legs and bottom clad in lycra breeches, and rather forgot that they would have to follow her legs up some quite difficult terrain. By the time they got here they were usually knackered and wondering why they had chosen such a difficult route.
She knew shouldn't be so disdainful. They were, after all, the way she made her money. Real walkers didn't need her, didn't need a guide on a mountain like this, didn't need her knowledge of the hills, the birds, the plants, the weather.
And she realised she was being a bit hard on this one. Okay, he had been a bit too pompous when they had left the lay-by. And he had tried to show he knew more about this area than she did. But it wasn't his fault that she had had the row with J last night, and she shouldn't take it out on him. It had occurred to her more than once that even if she hadn't had a client she would have walked up to this point today. Maybe not to the top, but to here. To sit and rest and watch the cloud shadows slithering over the hills below and to feel a sense of perspective and reality seep back into her mind, pushing out the anger and replacing it with something calmer, more objective, more practical. Revenge maybe.
She shoved her water bottle into her bag, and walked the few paces down the hill towards him. He returned her smile, and shifted his rucksack so that she could sit down on the rock.
"Sorry", she said, flopping down beside him. "We shouldn't have taken that last ridge so fast. I didn't mean to leave you behind. There's no rush to get to the top, anyway. The weather looks good and at this time of year there's lots of light."
"I expect you could lead us down in the dark in a blizzard anyway."
His voice was relaxed and friendly now that he had recovered his breath and poise. The hard work of the way up had knocked his overconfidence out of him, and he had spent the last half mile regretting his blasť words in the valley below. He had been reminded by his body that he was not the twenty five year old that had last climbed this hill, and that the intervening years in offices and cars had not been the ideal way to keep his climbing skills at their peak. But even out of breath and with aching calves, he was happy to be here and relished the wide spaces and the freedom.
She smiled at the compliment. "I reckon I probably could! I remember a group we took down from here the winter before last. Came up in trainers on a sunny morning in December, but the snow had blown in by lunchtime. It took us until midnight to find them, huddling on a ledge about three hundred feet down there. It was dawn by the time we had got the last one down."
He looked up at her again. His respect for her had grown during the walk. She was, by his standards, still just a kid, but she knew her stuff and deserved credit and respect.
He had spotted her ad in the shop yesterday.
"Experienced local guide, IMC qualified, available for winter and summer ascents. Reasonable fees."
When he asked in the shop, he had been pointed to the pub over the road. The description he had been given ("Tall, dark hair, blue breeches, pint of lager.") left him in no doubt as to who he was after once he got inside. She was, as promised, leaning against the bar chatting animatedly about climbing. When he approached and spoke her name she had smiled, and dismissed the others with a wave of her hand. "Sorry, work beckons!"
His first impressions were not too favourable, but she seemed to know her stuff and her rates were acceptable (if not "reasonable"). He had arranged to meet her early the next morning.
Overnight he had kicked himself for being so hasty. He knew he shouldn't go up here alone, but if he had spent the day in the village he would probably have met a kindred spirit, or tagged along with another party. But the die was cast. The next morning the friendly chat in the pub seemed far behind. She had been waiting for him in the car park when he had driven up, fully kitted out, rucksack on her back. No welcoming smile, just a cold professional climber, impatient to get going.
But now she seemed to have mellowed, and relaxed. As they set off up the last ridge to the summit, they chatted about climbing and mountains and birds and snow, and he began, for the first time, to enjoy her company. He told her of his youth spent hitch hiking to the mountains at the weekends and of holidays spent traversing remote, barren, beautiful landscapes. They shared recollections of high peaks, mountain sunrises and crevasse filled glaciers.