Having cleared the pass at a dead run, shed paused for a moment to let out two sharp whistles. Argo appeared from behind an outcrop and she wasted no time leaping onto the waiting mares back. Heading back down the side of the mountain at a gallop, she was vaguely aware of plowing through the middle of the surprised Metzovan patrol, who were returning to find the source of the ominous rumble from the pass. They didnt even have time to draw their swords before she was past them and disappearing in a cloud of dust around a bend in the trail.
It was pointless to follow the same route as the advanced force. Logic dictated that she had no hope of catching up with them. But, because her mind refused the possibility, shed formed a plan a few candlemarks ago, while crouched behind the boulders overlooking the enemys encampment.
Having spent some time assessing the sleeping army dotting the plane before her, shed finally taken a few minutes to sit down and lean her back against cold, rough stone; stretching stiff muscles before taking a few long pulls on the waterskin beside her. Bringing her knees up and resting her head back, shed closed her eyes for a moment, letting a wave of exhaustion pass over her. For some reason, the crude map drawn on the piece of parchment had appeared before her. Letting her eyes remain closed, shed idly traced the route that the advance force would be taking to reach the Amazon camp. And then she was suddenly wide-awake and fishing in her bracer for the scrap of parchment.
Unfolding it and moving slightly out of the shadow cast by the moonlit boulder, shed strained her eyes in the faint light as she poured over the map, confirming what shed noticed earlier; the route marked out for the advanced force didnt lead in a straight line from the pass to the Amazon camp. There was a small mountain range extending off this one: the advanced force had to detour south around it before heading back north to reach the site of the ambush.
And that, shed suddenly known, was where she was going to make up her time. She'd cut straight across that range. Shed also noticed a river indicated on the other side that looked like it might eventually end up running right by the Amazon camp. If she could pick up its headwaters, a fast horse just might get her there in time.
Now she and Argo were out of the foothills and heading west across the plane. The morning sun had cleared the mountain range and as she focused on the ground before them, she grimly noted the shortening of the shadow they were chasing as the sun climbed in the sky behind them. But she kept her mind focused on the ground ahead; her eyes constantly scanning for any obstacle that would slow them down and keep them from reaching their goal.
Before her, to the west, the blue haze of the second range arose straight out of the plane, contrasting with the white clouds, which seemed to catch on their jagged tops.
It was less than two candlemarks before they closed the distance and her vision was again filled with spires of bare stone rising a thousand meters and disappearing into the white mists shrouding their peaks. This range wasnt as high as the mother-range, the bare granite extending only a few hundred meters or so above the tree line. Sparing time to lift her eyes from the rough ground, shed spotted no obvious way through, but she'd noticed a jagged crack in the solid wall of rock, and that was where she was headed.
Negotiating Argo as close to the base of a sheer granite wall as the bolder strewn ground would allow, she quickly dismounted and unsaddled the mare, shoving the saddle and bags under a protective outcrop. Taking a moment to stare up at the pink rock towering above her, she decided shed climb a lot faster without the weight of her armor as well. Quickly stripping off the brass cuirass, greaves and arm guards, she left them on top of her packs before carefully wrapping her healers kit, chakram and sword in a piece of oilskin. As she secured the bundle across her back with a leather strap, she approached the mare.
Taking a moment to scratch the war-horse on her ears, she leaned close and met the liquid brown eyes regarding her with a disapproving look. "Im sorry, girl. Gabrielles in trouble. Im going to have to leave you here for a while." Wrapping her arms around Argos neck, she let her head rest against the sandy mane for just a minute. "Theres plenty of food and water and I promise Ill be back as soon as I can."
Argo seemed resigned to her fate and gave an encouraging nod of her head as she watched Xena walk back to stand under the cliff.
Hesitating for a moment while experienced eyes mapped her route up the rockface, the warrior readjusted the waterskin on her back before reaching out to explore the stone with her right hand, getting her first grip as she felt her fingers close around the cold, gritty surface. Her mind was totally focused now on finding the next finger and foot hold as she concentrated on getting up that wall as quickly as possible.
It was the warmth of the morning sun beating down through the sides of her tent that slowly roused Gabrielle from the fitful dreams shed been having. Shed eventually fallen asleep with her scrolls around her and now, as she rolled over to her other side to escape the harsh daylight, she felt several dig into her hip.
Keeping her eyes closed, she rolled back and felt around behind her with her hand, only realizing what was pressing into her when her fingers wrapped around the rolls of parchment. She pushed them to one side as she settled onto her back and absorbed the sounds drifting past, her mind trying to focus. She picked out the faint background rush of the river running past camp and the distant sounds of voices exchanging morning greetings as the smell of wood smoke drifted into her tent. Realizing it must be getting late, she was surprised that Xena had let her sleep so long.
And then it came back to her. Xena wasnt here.
She felt the now familiar knot settle in her stomach as she opened her eyes and confirmed that she was alone in a tent in the middle of nowhere. Then she smiled in spite of herself.
Stop over-dramatizing, bard.
Xena had probably spent the night in a soft, warm bed in her mothers inn. Which Gabrielle was sure was a lot more comfortable than this cot that shed spent the past few nights on.
But that would soon change. Shed made up her mind last night, before she drifted off, that as soon as they finished here today she'd head for Amphipolis to join her partner. And, she wasnt going to let Ephiny, or anyone else, stop her this time. There was no reason to keep her here after the treaty was signed, and every reason to go find Xena. If Xena would still have her.
Whoa! Now where did that come from? I know were still best friends. This isnt like when she left before; not like when Solan died.
Flinching at the intense pain those memories caused, she tried to focus back on the present. Deciding to change the depressing direction of her thoughts, she let a small smile play across her face as she planned what she was going to say to her partner when she finally did catch up with her. "Wherever you are Xena, I hope youre safe and well." She let an evil grin take over as she muttered to herself. "Because you are in big trouble, warrior, when I do track you down."
Throwing back her blanket, she got up and splashed cold water on her face before getting dressed. She contemplated putting on her ceremonial leathers but decided to wait until later. Besides, there were complicated parts she always had trouble with that Xena usual got for her. Today shed have to find someone elses help. There was no rush, however. The ceremony wasnt 'til noon.
Gabrielle left her tent and headed over to the cook fires. She spotted Ephiny sitting with Eponin and most of the other Amazons including Jess, Philana and Amara, and made her way over to join them. They all looked up and greeted her as Ephiny made room on the log next to her.
Returning their greetings, Gabrielle reached for the ladle in the fire-blackened pot suspended over the coals and filled a bowl with steaming porridge. She returned the implement to its spot before picking up a spoon from the pile beside the clean bowls and taking her seat. Digging in, she brought a small portion up, testing its temperature with her lips, before committing the contents to her mouth.
"Well, Gabrielle? Ready for the ceremony?" Ephiny inquired around a mouthful of warm pan bread spread with fresh preserves.
Looking slightly chagrinned, Gabrielle glanced over. "Im going to need help with the outfit. Xena usually gives me a hand with it." A teasing tone entered the bards voice. "You know, for women with such a simple lifestyle, you sure make some complicated clothes."
As the women around the campfire laughed, Amara piped up. "I...um...Id be pleased to help you with it, my Queen."
Surprised by the unexpected offer of help, Gabrielle stopped laughing and looked over at the shy girl.
"Why thank you, Amara. I can see Im not going to get any sympathy from this bunch." She glared at Ephiny before turning back to the young girl. "Why dont you stop by my tent just before the ceremony, if thats all right?"
Amara exchanged a glance with Philana, who gave her an encouraging nod, before smiling shyly at the bard, "Oh, yes my Queen. Ill be there." She dropped her gaze back down to the bread she was now nervously pulling apart with her fingers, but her face was beaming.
Gabrielle turned back to Ephiny. "So, whats the plan for today?"
The Regent regarded her warmly. "Well, we set up a table in the center of the camp with two chairs. When the time comes youll sit in one and King Doraclyse will sit in another. Ill bring you a copy of the treaty to sign and Princess Cynara will give a copy to her father. After you both sign the copy in front of you, Cynara and I exchange copies and you sign those too. Thats it."
Gabrielle paused in lifting another spoonful, surprise in her voice. "What do you mean, thats it? Weve come all this way for that. No speeches? No flag waving? No parades?"
Ephiny raised an eyebrow. "Gabrielle, Amazons dont have parades."
The bard waved her spoon. "You know what I mean."
Ephiny lowered her voice and leaned over. "As one Queen to another, let me give you a tip. Only do that stuff to impress the masses. Here, in the middle of nowhere, with just a few of us, its just too much trouble."
Smiling now, the bard nodded her head. "Hmm, I can see your point, Eph. So this thing should be over in what, five minutes? Then what? We all just go home?"
Ephiny laughed. "No Gabrielle, by then itll be too late to set out so well have a quiet celebration, go to bed early and get a fresh start tomorrow. I know it doesnt seem very glamorous, but thats what these things are usually like."
Gabrielle thought about that a minute as she chewed on her cereal. "Well, it seems easy enough, I guess."
She took a deep breath, and steeled herself for what was to come. Keeping her eyes focused on her bowl, she made sure every Amazon at the cook fire could hear the determination in her voice. "But Eph., Im going to skip the celebration, okay? Im heading out for Amphipolis, right after the ceremony."
Gabrielle kept her head down and concentrated on eating as she felt the women around her stiffen. She suspected Ephiny exchanged a few pointed looks with them because it was less than a couple of heartbeats before it was just Ephiny and Eponin left at the fire with her.
The watching soldiers at the adjoining campfires exchanged perplexed looks when most of the Amazons suddenly grabbed their bowls and stood up to join the men at their fires. Room was made and the women ate in silence, the Amazons keeping their eyes focused on their breakfast while trying not to appear too obvious as they strained to hear the conversation taking place at the next fire.
Having made sure that they wouldnt be overheard, Ephiny tried to keep her voice down as she turned towards the bard. "Gabrielle, do you think thats wise? After all, we dont know for sure shes there." Ephiny watched the bard raise her head and recognized the look in those deep-green eyes.
"I know shes there, Eph., and after the ceremony, you dont need me here. If you could spare a horse and someone to show me the way from here to Amphipolis, or at least draw me a map, Id appreciate it."
Ephiny could tell from the set to the bards shoulders and the look on her face that Gabrielles mind was made up. She knew from past experience that she was wasting her time. She resigned herself to having lost this battle.
"Okay, Gabrielle." Turning to Eponin, the Regent raised an eyebrow.
The Weapons-Master quickly shifted to face her Queen.
"Gabrielle, may I have the honor of escorting you to Amphipolis?"
The bard was a bit embarrassed. She didnt want a big fuss made. She just wanted to get to Amphipolis as quickly as possible.
"Thanks, Ep., but thats not necessary. Im sure you have other, more important things to do. Why not just draw me a map?"
The Weapons-Master was a little stung until she realized that the bard really didnt realize how important she was to a whole nation of women. The Amazon spoke up, with some vehemence. "Gabrielle, there is nothing more important than your safety."
Ephiny recognized the look of bewilderment that crossed the bards face at the Amazons passionate response and hastened to add. "What Eponin means is that she needs to get out more and would like a nice ride in the country with you. Right, Ep.?"
Gabrielle looked at both women before shrugging. She wasnt too sure what had just gone on, but she knew she'd appreciate the Weapons-Masters company. "Okay. When you put it that way, how can I refuse?"
As she turned back to her bowl and scooped up the last mouthful, she wondered what she was going to do for the next several candlemarks.
Eponin spoke up, trying to ease the mild tension still in the air around them. "Gabrielle, want to get in some staff practice? Travelling with Xena, you must have picked up something?" She hesitated before a grin spread across her face. "But of course, if youd rather not, Ill understand. As I recall, you werent one of my most coordinated students." She wiggled her eyebrows in a challenge at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle grinned right back. "Over by the horses. Ten minutes?"
The two women stood up and dropped their now empty bowls, along with their spoons, in a tub with the rest of the breakfast dishes before heading for their respective tents, both glad to have something to fill the time. Gabrielle especially, although going through the drills with someone other than Xena was going to feel strange.
She no longer felt the screaming muscles in her shoulders or the shaking in her arms as she pulled herself up another few inches. Pressing her cheek against the cold stone, she ignored the sting of sweat in her eyes and focused all of her concentration on moving the toes of her right boot as she probed the rock for the slightest flaw that would bear her weight. Finally feeling an irregularity, she tightly wedged the boot in a crack, and shifted her weight onto that leg, willing her knee to straighten. As it did, her fingers inched up once more, leaving a bloody trail as they searched the rocks, before sliding into a crevasse and beginning the process all over again.
Shed been climbing steadily for several candlemarks. Her fingers, arms and thighs had been scrapped raw as she clung to the side of the mountain, using brute strength to pull herself up, fighting for every inch she took.
Shed reached the top of the first wall only to be confronted by an even taller cliff a couple of hundred meters further up the mountain. Shed managed to climb that and had continued to head west, leaping over chasms and scrambling steadily upwards through the rocks surrounding her. She only spared the time to catch her breath and take a sip of water when forced to stop and plan her route over the next obstacle.
Now she was hanging by her fingertips, several hundred meters up yet another cliff-face. She blinked several times as the sweat blurred her vision again. In the back of her mind, she tried to ignore the voice that was chanting that she was taking too long.
Finally finding a hold for her left foot, she forced shaking leg muscles to lift her as her fingers reached up once more. Her hand hooked over a ledge and as she rested her face against the cold stone once again, she felt a warmth begin to spread through her fingers. Deciding she was starting to hallucinate, it took a moment for her mind to register when she looked up and saw a shaft of sunlight instead of shadows. Gripping her other hand over the ledge, she bent her knee, gave a little push, and found herself supported on her arms as she hooked one leg over the ledge. Rolling onto her back, she felt the sun-warmed rock beneath her and moved her hand up to shield her eyes as the bright light shone down on her dark leathers.
She took in great gulps of air; her body shaking uncontrollably as she felt the warmth begin to drain away what strength she had left. It was the pain from the cramps in her arms and legs that roused her. Reaching under her and pulling the nearly empty waterskin out from where she was partially lying on it, she barely had the strength to unstop it and lift it to her lips, before draining it and tossing it to one side.
Rolling over onto her stomach, she raised herself on her elbows and stared off to the west. For the first time, she could see a solid green cover of treetops extending to the horizon. Cutting through the blanket of green, like a silver thread sewn through the trees, she could see the sunlight reflected off the river as it cut through the forest, showing her the way to the Amazon camp. From where she was, she figured she could reach the bottom of the mountain in less than a candlemark. Then another couple of candlemarks to reach the camp. Provided she could get to a horse, that is
She stopped the shaking in her arms and legs long enough to get them beneath her and stagger to her feet. Letting a wave of dizziness pass over her, she impatiently waited for her vision to clear. She concentrated now on making her protesting arms and legs obey her as she started to scramble down the other side.
Gabrielle returned to her tent and grabbed her staff, already beginning a series of spins to loosen her arms as she headed back outside. She was surprised to find General Andrus waiting for her when she stepped into the sunlight.
Stilling the staff, she stopped as the soldier stepped forward.
"Excuse me, Gabrielle. I wonder if I could speak with you a moment?"
For some reason, she took a quick look around, checking for the nearest Amazons, before meeting his intent stare "Um, sure. Did you want to come inside or talk here?"
"How about we take a walk?"
Gabrielle was too surprised to resist when the General took up a position at her elbow and firmly steered her away from the tents and towards the bank of the river. She began to feel uneasy as she walked in silence at his side, his hand never leaving her arm as they made their way through the forest, the sound of rushing water becoming steadily louder as they approached a break in the trees.
Gabrielle brought herself to an abrupt halt as they stepped out of the forest and into the bright light, finding herself standing at the edge of a steep rock embankment. Looking down past the weeds growing along the top, she was surprised by how much noise the cold, dark water below was making as it raced down the channel formed by rocks on either side. She stood for a moment, mesmerized, as she observed the strong currents rippling beneath the surface, eddies forming and then disappearing again. She followed the foaming white water downstream with her eyes, as the river itself seemed to surge over half-submerged rocks before disappearing around a bend, a quarter kilometer further down.
She shivered in the cold air drifting up from the channel before pulling away from the Generals grip and turning to face him. The roar of the water was loud here and she had to strain to hear what the General was saying, stifling the urge to back up a pace as he bent his head down closer to hers.
"Gabrielle, Xena spoke very highly of you the other night. I know she thinks of you as her best friend and trusts you; something she rarely does with anyone. I hope you wont take this the wrong way, but is there something about her not being here that I should know about?" The strange behavior of the Amazons around the campfire this morning finally prompting him to ask a question that had been on his mind for several days.
Gabrielle was now very wary. She knew that Xena and the General seemed to be old friends. Shed watched them together out of the corner of her eye the night of the dinner in Ephinys hut.
But, she also knew the kinds of people her partner used to associate with. And most of the ones shed met would just as soon slit Xenas throat as look at her. She had no reason to trust the General so she kept her expression guarded. "Im sorry, General. I dont understand what youre asking. Xenas not being here has nothing to do with you or the treaty."
The soldiers eyes bore into the bards, a demanding note beginning to tinge his voice. "Are you sure, Gabrielle? Im not deaf or blind, you know. Ive heard the rumors, just like everyone else." He paused before continuing. "Ive see the Amazons reaction at the mention of Xenas name. Yours is a small village, remember?" He let his expression soften a little. "I know there was some incident that caused Xena to leave without telling anyone where she was going. I just want your assurances, as her friend, that it has nothing to do with the treaty negotiations."
The General saw the flash of pain reflected in the young womans eyes before the bard turned away to study the river. "I assure you, General, Xenas leaving had nothing to do with the treaty."
They both stood for a moment, the soldier noting the stiff back of the Amazon Queen beside him, concerned now as he noticed the frown take over the womans normally cheerful features. Whatever Xenas reason for leaving, her friend was clearly upset by it.
"Gabrielle, I know this is none of my business, but when I served under her, she used to take off every once in a while without telling anyone. Shed disappear for days, and wed have to cover for her in front of the men. Then shed come riding back a week or so later, never willing to discuss where shed gone or what shed done. It used to drive us crazy."
Gabrielle stood watching the river for a moment before turning to look up at the General, interest reflected behind those deep green eyes. "Did you ever figure out where she went?"
The General let a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. "No. I tried to follow her once. It was the only time I ever really thought she was going to kill me. Oh, she used to get mad and beat us up just to show us she still could, but the only time I thought I was going to die by her hand was when she caught me trailing her."
His face was serious now. "I dont know. She had me in a headlock, her sword at my neck, but she seemed to come to herself just as she started to draw it across my throat. Instead, she stood there for what seemed like an eternity before dropping me in the dirt and re-mounting her horse. As she sheathed her sword, she turned those deadly blue eyes of hers on me and looked right through me. The only thing she said was You ever do that again, Ill kill you, before turning and riding off."
Surprised that the General had shared that with her, the bard thought for a moment before letting out a sigh. "Well, thats not the case this time."
The General met the bards eyes with his own and his voice dropped an octave lower. "Gabrielle, I owe Xena more than even she realizes. If I can help, I hope you wont hesitate to ask."
Touched by the mans concern, Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, General. But this is just between the two of us. I do appreciate your offer, though."
The General returned her smile. "Please, Gabrielle, call me Andrus."
"Here you are!"
The two started at the sudden interruption as Ephiny emerged from between the trees and joined them on the bank. The Regent took a quick look down into the swirling current below, noting how close the two were standing to the edge, before turning and trying to read the look on the bards face as she addressed them both.
The General gave the young woman beside him a wink before turning to face the Amazon. "Everythings fine, Ephiny. We were just discussing a mutual friend." Sparing a quick glance back at the bard, he paused before adding. "Id better get back before the King misses me. Remember what I said, Gabrielle. Anytime. I mean that."
After watching him re-enter the forest, Ephiny turned to face the bard. "Gabrielle, are you all right? What were the two of you doing here? Arent you supposed to be sparring with Eponin?"
Surprised by the note of concern in the Regents voice, green eyes met gray. "Sorry, Eph. The General wanted to talk and I guess he figured we wouldnt be overheard here."
As they started to stroll back through the forest together, Ephiny put her hand on the bards arm "Is everything all right, Gabrielle?"
Warm eyes met hers.
"Everythings fine. We were just discussing a mutual friend with a penchant for leather and an extremely frustrating personality." Sensing a tension coming from the woman beside her, she hesitated before asking, "What is it, Eph.?"
Straightening her shoulders slightly, the Amazon met the bards curious look. "Gabrielle, its probably nothing, but I did promise to tell you everything." The Regent continued, "The scouts Solari sent to Amphipolis should have reported back by now."
The bard looked confused. "I dont understand?"
The Amazon shrugged. "Theyre late reporting in. They should have caught up to us first thing this morning." Seeing the now concerned look in those green eyes, the Regent hastened to add. "Gabrielle, it could be anything. I wouldnt start to worry yet."
Gabrielle knew that there were probably dozens of things that could have delayed the scouts but she still felt vaguely uneasy. "Ephiny, Im leaving right after the ceremony." The bards face left no room for argument.
The Regent had expected this. "Okay, Gabrielle. But Im going to have one of the guards join you and Eponin."
The bard began to protest "Ephiny, thats not necessary."
The Regent let her know there was no room for discussion on this point. "Yes it is, Gabrielle. Youre an Amazon Queen. You will not travel without adequate escort as long as I am Regent."
"Humor me, Gabrielle, please."
They emerged from the trees and into the camp, spotting Eponin as she headed their way, looking very relieved.
Gabrielle drew closer to Ephiny. "Why does Ep. look like that?"
Ephiny looked a bit sheepish. "We Amazons tend to get a bit upset when we misplace our Queen. When you didnt meet her when you were supposed to, she raised the alarm."
Gabrielle stopped. "Oh, Ephiny..."
As the Regent stopped beside her, they locked eyes. "Dont Oh, Ephiny me, Gabrielle. We thought we lost you once. Humor us, if we try to avoid it in the future, okay?"
Gabrielle was the first to turn away as Eponin joined them.
"You found her."
Ephiny keep her eyes on the bard for another spilt-second longer before turning herself to meet the relieved Amazon.
"She was just taking a walk by the river with the General." Noticing that the Weapons-Master was about to say something else, she hastened to add. "Words spread about the two of you. You dont want to keep your audience waiting, do you?"
Motioning with her head, they all looked over to see the Amazon women beginning to gather in a circle by the horses. Gabrielle returned Eponins grin before they both headed in that direction. The two women were soon surrounded by cheering Amazons and a few soldiers who were curious about what was going on.
Starting with a few standard thrusts and blocks as they assessed each others reactions, Gabrielle let Eponin take the lead and they soon settled into a series of moves Gabrielle recognized as a standard drill used by advanced staff students. Concentrating on the familiar pattern, she was able to easily match the increasing tempo of the strokes as Eponin, surprised by Gabrielles newfound coordination, decided to try to test her Queens limits.
Ending the series with flourish, both women were breathing hard as they grinned at each other.
"Not bad, Gabrielle. Youve improved."
"You think so? Want to try something else or did I wear you out?"
Eponin just grinned as she gripped her staff tighter and started circling. Gabrielle decided to show the Amazon Weapons-Master just what this Amazon Queen was capable of.
Beginning a series of aggressive moves that would lead into one of Xenas and hers more complicated routines, it was soon evident it was taking all of Eponins concentration to anticipate and block the lightning-fast moves of the bard.
Finally, Gabrielle managed to sweep Eponins feet out from under her, and when the Amazon hit the ground, she just laid there panting, her eyes closed. Gabrielle was kneeling at her side in an instant, a worried look on her face.
A tired voice arose from the dirt. "Go away, Gabrielle. Go find someone else to play with. Okay?"
Gabrielles concerned look was swiftly replaced by a grin. "Oh, cmon, Ep. You forget who I train with. Its not my fault my partner..." Gabrielles voice trailed off as her throat suddenly closed. Taking a deep breath, she noticed the woman staring up at her in sympathy.
"Get up Ep., and Ill show you that last move." Gabrielle offered her hand to the woman lying on the ground.
Grabbing Gabrielles wrist, Eponin hauled herself up. Dusting off her leathers, she didnt look at the bard as she replied. "Only if you promise to go easy on me."
The others in the crowd laughed as Gabrielle began to show the dark-haired woman the new moves. Most of the others went back to their tents while some stood and tried to remember what Gabrielle was demonstrating, knowing an opportunity like that didnt come often.
It had taken almost a candlemark to scramble down the side of the mountain. The way down hadnt been as steep as the way up and shed managed to find alternate routes around all the sheer drop-offs shed encountered.
Taking every opportunity to scan the forest spreading out below her, she knew she was on the right track. Shed noticed a gray haze rising above the treetops way off in the distance that had to be the smoke from the Amazon camp.
But it was at least three candlemarks away at a fast jog and she was at the point now where she was having trouble lifting her feet high enough to keep from stumbling over the stones in her path.
As her eyes continued to desperately search for the telltale signs indicating the presence of a village or even a camp, she'd begun to panic. She needed a horse and that meant a settlement, or at least a cottage or something. But, this area was at the extreme edge of the Amazon lands and appeared to be uninhabited, except for the temporary treaty camp itself.
Her heart had soared earlier when she thought shed spotted several settlements much closer along the river until she realized that it wasnt smoke rising above the trees, but the mists from white-water rapids.
Now, she stood at the top of a sheer, hundred-meter drop, as the thunder of a waterfall echoed off the steep rock walls around her. At least, shed found the headwaters of the river.
Following a small stream shed almost fallen over when shed reached the tree-line, shed been heartened when it was joined by others, changing from a gentle trickle to a raging torrent as it tumbled down the mountain. Shed been unable to follow it any further, however, as it disappeared over the edge of the mist-drenched rocks.
Standing boot deep in water for almost a quarter candlemark now, her eyes kept searching the same sheer rockface beneath her, trying to spot a route down. But the slick, moss and algae covered stone descended straight into the churning water at the base of the waterfall.
And, even if she did manage to make it down in one piece, with no horse, it would take her too long to reach the camp.
Because shed run out of time. The sun was directly overhead and that meant, right now, Gabrielle and the others may already be dead.
Closing her eyes, she felt like there was a metal band tightening around her chest. She tried to clear her mind to think, unwilling to admit the possibility of defeat. But all she kept seeing was Gabrielles face when shed finally made it to the temple. Shed been too late then.
But, dammit, she was not going to be too late now!
Taking a quick step forward, she stopped thinking and launched herself over the cliffs edge, tucking herself into a dive.
The thunder of the falling water was deafening but she had only a few seconds to notice before she slammed headfirst into a solid wall of roiling whiteness and then was being tossed and pulled in every direction as she was sucked deep below the surface.
Totally disoriented, not knowing which way was up, she concentrated instead on just keeping her arms and legs from being ripped from her body by the force of the falling water pounded her. And then she started to fight against the currents holding her down as she instinctively began to follow the bubbles being churned up in the maelstrom that surrounded her.
She did finally notice the lightening of the water above her but now she was running out of air. And as hard as she struggled against them, the currents kept grabbing at her and pulling her back down as she tried to ignore the heaving in her chest, her lungs running out of oxygen to pump. She fought, but her struggles became weaker as the roaring in her ears increased.
Her last thoughts were of Gabrielle.
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