Open water. He must find open water. The threat from the sky was drawing close. Men. Men wanted his pelt, he knew. There was only one possible route to safety: If he reached a lead of water, they might leave him be. If their bullets lodged deep in his back as he swam, the ocean would take him and they had lost; if they shot him down on solid ice, his pelt was theirs.
Pweoww. The first shot landed a body length ahead, blowing up a wide corona of ice. Ingavar's momentum took him straight through it. The shattering halo of bitter-sharp crystals cut into his shadowed, battle-scarred snout, stinging his eyes and ripping at his gums. He snorted and veered away. But that was exactly what the men had intended, he knew it when he saw the ridges up ahead. They were turning him toward uneven ground, where his cover was better but his run would falter.
Water. He must find open water.
The second shot grazed his ear. He veered again, this time into the pain and away from the snare of the glistening ridges. The scent of the ocean was strong in his nostrils. The ice beneath his paws was thinning, he could tell. There were noticeable shudders and his foot-fall was ringing. Any bear worth his weight in seal knew how to judge the thickness of the surface. A few more strides and he could rear and break through it, swim below the crust if he needed to.
The third shot thudded into his shoulder. The force of the impact slammed him to his knees. His front legs buckled underneath his belly and he skidded forward with his chin against the ice, until his balance gave out and he fell, panting, on the flank. There he lay, heat rising from his scissored jaws, claws extended and scrabbling for a foothold as if they had not yet given up hope. But it was over. Ingavar knew it. His senses were swimming. His leg was gone. Deep at the root of the angry red channel which the bullet had hacked through fur and muscle, the poison was spreading inside his lung.
His eyes closed.
In the air, he could still hear the buzz of the plane. It seemed quiet compared to the beat of his heart. His chest throbbed against the creaking ice. Blood pooled in the side of his mouth. Sickness claimed his seal-starving belly. The plane circled like an irritated skua. Why? What were they waiting for? Why didn't they close and shoot again?
He opened his eyes. A wisp of fog streamed across his gaze. A mist was gathering. A mist. How, when the morning sun was bright overhead and there was no wind rippling through his fur? Dizzily, he rolled his head and scented. The air was moving in a quick white spiral. Snowflakes danced and kissed his shoulder. The blue sky turned by pieces to white. A blizzard had come from nowhere to cover him. He snorted with disbelief and his claws pierced deep into the yielding ice, to mirror the distress gouging through his heart.
A blizzard. Too late. Just too late.
He closed his eyes for a long time then.