Here it is: a long excerpt from my upcoming release, The Danger of Destiny. I got so much satisfaction writing Hedi’s story to its completion! Look for DESTINY in the stores come March 3rd!
Legs like lead. Each ragged breath dragon fire scorching my windpipe. Trowbridge’s fist a bruising manacle, hauling me up every time I lost my footing.
And trust me, I kept stumbling.
There can be no worse plight than knowing that you’re being pursued by relentless trackers. No lousier realization than the fact that your escape would be determined by how quickly you could sprint.
There’s worse. You don’t really hit the bottom of the emotional well until you have realized the aforementioned and had a chance to start reflecting on how well your natural abilities were going to meet the challenge. Yeah, that’s the bad part. When you start thinking that you’re not strong enough. You’re not fast enough. You’re not going to outrun a horse or two hunters determined to track a wolf and a woman who may or may not be a wolf.
Predictably—because nothing went right whenever Trowbridge and I embarked on an escape plan—within three-quarters of an hour of our K2 summit challenge our progress was shadowed from above by our very own Peacock-Trowbridge hellhound.
The cloud had been a small, distant milky shimmer when we first noticed it an hour ago. Now it was the same color as Toronto’s dirty pigeons and, for a mini-cloud, somewhat corpulent. Pursuing prey seemed to make the thing grow fatter, not leaner. It hadn’t as yet emitted a rumble. That was a plus.
On the negative side, Qae and the guy wearing the bottle blue jacket were following it and, therefore, us.
I was slowing Trowbridge down. I knew I was, but I couldn’t go any faster. I’d run the last twenty minutes with a hand clamped over my side. My bruised feet weren’t fleet; they were unforgivably clumsy. Even wearing Varens’s moccasins.
Horses against people on foot. It wasn’t fair.
Qae and uniform-guy were gaining on us. I hadn’t heard or seen them yet, but Trowbridge’s ears were keener than mine and, though my mate had restrained himself from progress reports, his body language spoke volumes.
We were being hunted.
Trowbridge stopped suddenly and I almost lumbered into his back. Hand to the fire in my side, I panted while he studied the terrain above us. We’d left the woods behind us a few minutes ago. Now it was mostly outcrops—jagged rocks chiseled by hungry winds—leading upward to K2’s peak. Scrubby growth that may or may not serve as handholds.
Goddess, how am I going to climb that? My legs are quivering.
It would be a long, slow crawl.
“Well, here’s a bonus,” I rasped between pants. “They’ll have to dismount, right? Qae’s going to have to hoof it like us. We can use that, right?”
Trowbridge’s hand tightened on my wrist, but he didn’t respond.
By now, I’d figured out that silence from my guy meant he was thinking something he’d rather not tell me. So I tried to put myself in his shoes, turning to look at what he was staring at—K2’s incline.
No … “staring” or “looking” was the wrong verb. He wasn’t looking—his gaze was an odd combination of calculation and resignation—as much as he was seeing. Yes, that was it. He was seeing that climb exactly like I had, not a second ago, despite the bravado I’d just spewed.
And what he was seeing was one hill too many.
For Jill to get up that hill, Jack was going to do most of the work, literally hauling her up it. And while he yanked, tugged, dragged, or carried his Jill, his back would be presented to the bad guys. Hers too. Both spines amounting to twin bull’s-eyes, wonderfully convenient to the trackers who would follow us.
Qae had a bow.
I sagged. My gaze jerked from K2’s to Trowbridge’s. “How far can arrows fly?”
Again, I read his blue eyes, too easily. Damn, damn, damn. I pulled my wrist from his grip and breathed into my fist. Three pants. Four. My gaze slid from K2 to a lichen-covered stone and the succulent that grew in its shadow. The plant had starry white flowers.
Enough, Hedi. Enough.
My lower lip trembled against my thumb joint. I pressed against it, bruising it into submission, then dropped my hand.
“You go on without me,” I told him.
“You’re faster; you’re stronger. You not injured; you can lose him this time.” I wouldn’t look at Trowbridge—the flower had a yellow center the color of the sun—but I could smell him. His scent was sharp, spiced with anger and adrenaline. “I’ll find a place to hide. Qae’s tracking your scent, not mine. I have no scent.”
“You smell like me now.”
And then I started to babble. “I’ll find water and rinse your scent off. You go. You keep going; you get higher to a place where no Fae would dare climb. You find a cave. You hunker down. Then you wait. We’ll both wait. And then you come and find me. You’ll find me, and we’ll both be okay. And then we’ll—”
“I’ll carry you.”
I lifted my eyes to his. “Don’t be an idiot, Trowbridge. And don’t turn me into one either.”
His mouth tightened because I’d said the truth and we both knew it and, really, what’s there to say once the facts have been laid on the table? Except a long and complicated good-bye, and I didn’t want to do that.
I’d only just got him back.
I stared at the white starry-centered flower and kept my head down, thinking that I’d won the argument, even though he hadn’t moved. I was sure I had, even though winning felt like a loss. “Start moving,” I muttered.
I’d hide somewhere, and then later, not too much later, I’d start wondering if I did right or wrong.
I can’t let Qae get his hands on Trowbridge again. And if my mate’s set on protecting me rather than than saving his own hide … No …
Trowbridge isn’t going to carry me up this hill.
Not this Jill.
So, I’d wait somewhere—I’m good at hiding—until Trowbridge showed up with a cocky grin and Qae’s scalp or a strange wave of numbing fatigue slid over me. And if the latter happened, I’d know I’d failed. I’d accept the downside of being mated to a wolf. I’d welcome the slowing of my heart.
Life without Trowbridge.
Been there. Done that.
“Go on,” I told him harshly. “You’re wasting my time. I’ve got to find a place to hide.”
You see, that’s the difference between him and me. I leap and babble; he glowers and thinks. Trowbridge had been doing some rapid calculations of his own while I was working things through. His reply was non-verbal. He caught my wrist again.
“Keep up,” he growled, dragging me into another stumbling run.
It was a direction change. We were no longer on a dogged, despairing slog upward but were deviating to the right of the mountainside, where the slope eased downward before meeting a wall of rock.
He was taking us on a parallel line away from our pursuers. Where the hell were we going? If I weren’t so winded, I’d have asked.
* * *
We hurtled down the slope, following the wall of rock’s seams and fissures, until we came to a hidden opening. How Trowbridge knew it was there I do not know. But he knew of its location, because he skidded to stop—braking by slapping a hand on the wall of rock—then he pushed me into what looked like a crevice but wasn’t. It was a dark tunnel, not wider than two and a half feet, smelling of moss and moisture. He followed me inside, turning sideways so that his broad body could fit.
“Go, babe,” he said, pushing me with his shoulder.
Sound battered my ears. It took me a second to recognize it for what it was, the shhh-shush of running water. My breath, still coming out hard, was almost lost over its drumming beat. Ahead, down that narrow tube of rock, I saw light—brilliant and white. Two more shuffling steps, then my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I knew I wasn’t seeing white light at the end of the short tunnel but the white froth of a waterfall.
Trowbridge pushed me all the way to the end and then to the left. He gripped my arm as we shuffled along a ledge that hung over a big drop.
I’d visited Niagara Falls. Most Ontarians have, at one point or another. We’ve all paid too much for parking and joined the throngs walking toward the lookout. And like every other tourist, we politely—oh, all right, not that politely—waited our turn at the wall, then stood there for about three and half minutes before we realized that waterfalls are basically one-trick ponies. A waterfall don’t really change, you know? It’s not like the current changes direction. Water rolls off the lip and thunders to the basin below.
That’s what it does.
Mind you, this was no Niagara. It was a gushing shower in comparison and the drop insignificant in contrast, but standing there, so close to that rushing stream’s plummet … hearing its roar in my ears … being embraced by its natural wonder … it was like talking to my Maker. I could feel its water on my lips, slaking my terrible thirst. I could see the sky—so freakin’ blue. I could enjoy the soaring tips of trees of the forest below. I stood surveying my Goddess’s kingdom, my bare toes curling inside the boy’s moccasins.
If this was the last picture, it was a good one.
Trowbridge’s grip tightened on my elbow as I leaned out to look down.
Goddess, I hate heights.
Mountain-cold, the falls plummeted perhaps fifteen feet, then sheeted over a huge and slimed boulder, then plunged again—this drop another twenty feet or more—into water that was darker and probably deeper. From there, it cascaded over two easier drops, merging into a funnel of water that ran all the way down the River of Penance.
What if we tried to jump?
If we cleared the boulder, the next drop would be unpleasant but probably not deadly. As for the rest after that … I chewed my lip. It would be a series of bruising plummets. But it was all moot. We’d need a running start and a jet-fueled springboard to propel us far enough out that we’d clear that first boulder.
Trowbridge must have come to the same decision. He scowled at the rock wall on the other side of the falls. “That magic you got,” he shouted to me, “can it stretch that far?”
What was that? A distance of forty feet? Had I ever asked my magic to thin itself that far?
No choice. It was time to test her Gumby qualities. I gave my Fae talent a nudge. She surged upward, sending a flush up my body, and coursed down my right arm—liquid heat—to simmer at my nail tips. I stretched my arm back and cast out, and she spun from me, a cord of magic that thinned as it shot over the chasm.
Trowbridge wrapped his arms around my waist, clasping his hands over my belly.
Bliss—that is how my Fae felt upon release. As if Merenwyn’s magic perfume air was a taste memory long forgotten and now it was here, on her tongue and mine, and the delight of its sugared appeal was goosefleshing happiness.
“I am free,” I heard her hiss.
No, you are not. You are always part of me. And we’re in trouble. Reach for the wall.
I’d never seen my magic stretch into such a fine filament of green fire. My gut hollowed out and my wolf moaned as she unspooled.
Thin, thinner, thinnest.
But a girl, even one who’s only a voice in my mind and magic in my blood, can only stretch herself so far. My serpent broke apart into individual particles of mayhem and magic, a mere half yard from the rock face.
Green sparkles danced in the mist.
“To me,” I called.
She streamed back, gaining form and shape. Her nose nuzzled my swollen fingers. A flare of pain as she slid back inside me.
Bowing my head, I dropped my weighted hands to Trowbridge’s.
“No-go?” he said.
He gave me a reassuring squeeze. Then he pushed me back against the damp wall and leaned out on the thin ledge to look upward. He scanned the cliff face, his eyes narrowed. Without any warning, he jammed his hand into a tight crevasse in the wet wall, planted his left foot, and twisted, swinging his body out over the void. I shot forward and snagged his jeans as his chest hit the rock face with a hard thud.
He tried to be the pathfinder.
He truly did.
I heard him claw at the rock and saw shale shower down, felt his body stretch until it shook, but finally he swore and eased himself back onto the rock ledge beside me.
“It’s no good!” he shouted over the noise of the water. “We can’t do it!”
“Then, we’ll make our stand here,” I told him, turning to face the entrance of the tunnel. “They’ll never see my magic coming.”
At that declaration of war, my magic flamed once more. “Yes,” she sighed. “We shall fight to the death.”
Hard hands caught my shoulders and spun me to face my mate. His gaze scorched me, then he leaned close—warm, mine, love—and shouted in my ear, “This water runs into the River of Penance! It’s a rough ride, but it’s survivable. Once you get to the river, you should be golden. You let it carry you all the way down to the shallow crossing. You get to Daniel’s Rock. You remember the Two Sisters?”
“Of course I do, but—”
“You keep a lock on those two. There’s a trail between them. You take that and it will lead you right to the rock. You get yourself there and—”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s a way out of this.” He pivoted us back so that we were facing the void. His arms wrapped around my waist. “Lean back and look up, sweetheart.”
Water droplets beaded my cheeks as I tipped my head back to gaze upward. And there it was: a freakin’ tree. Stunted and twisted. Seeming to grow out of a crevasse some fifteen feet above and to the right. Its trunk was hooked. Its roots were invisible.
“You toss a line of your magic up there!” shouted Trowbridge. “Loop it around the tree trunk. Then I’ll pull you back and give you a good push. You’ll swing out just like Tarzan. You let go and drop into the deep water.”
I looked down. If I let go at the wrong time, we’d land on the boulder. And one of us—likely Trowbridge because his legs were longer—would break their femur or whatever. Or maybe, I’d crack my head open or break my spine. And then we’d lie there, gradually fading as the water leached the warmth out of us.
Though that’s only if I let go at the wrong time.
“You’re light and I’m great with Frisbees. You’ll fly. It will work,” he said. Then he repeated it, with the fervor of a man filled with more hope than belief, “It will work.”
Wait a minute. He’s not talking about us flying like Tarzan. He means me. I shrugged out of his embrace. “I’m not going without you. My magic can hold the both of us. Just because it broke—”
“The tree can’t hold our weight.”
“It will,” I said stubbornly.
“For once just listen to me without arguing.” He snagged my arms again. His cheekbones were flushed with color. “I can lead them away from you. By the time they think to look for you, you’ll be long gone. If I can get up that mountain there’s a place where I can even the odds. And if I can’t get there … I’m the Son of Lukynae. If Qae catches me, he’s not going to kill me. He’s going to bring me back to the castle.”
Trowbridge was going to sacrifice himself for me? “No!” I shouted. “You are not Hawkeye and I’m not what’s-her-name. We’re not doing this!”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The Last of the Mohicans!”
“This is not a fucking movie!” he yelled.
“And I’m not doing it!” I screamed.
“They’ll find you and they’ll hurt you!” he shouted back, giving me a shake. “They’ll hurt you in front of me. And they’ll keep doing it until I’m begging for them to kill you. Do you want it to go like that? I don’t. You were talking about chances … then I say let’s bring them on. You trust me. You let me swing you into that pool. Then you go find your brother. Get that fucking Book of Spells and turn it to ash.”
“Qae will capture you. You won’t have time to get away.”
“I have a chance, which is more than I had last time. Tink, we can do some good here.”
“I don’t want to do good anymore.”
His gaze scorched me. “I know, sweetheart. But you will.” Face set like stone, he removed Ralph and eased his chain over my head and then lifted my hair so that the links of gold lay close to my neck. “Just in case,” Trowbridge told me. “I don’t want the Black Mage to have the Royal Amulet.”
No, no, no.
“Come with me,” I pleaded once more. “We’ll both fly like Tarzan.”
“Told you. I can’t swim.”
“I don’t want to do this without you.”
He silently nodded, his thumb dragging along my trembling lower lip. “I’ll always find you. You got that?”
My throat hurt.
“I got that,” I whispered.
He kissed my forehead, his lips warming the furrows there. He pulled back to look at me, his eyes traveling over my features. Then, his hard hands clamped either side of my jaw and he slanted his mouth across mine.
It was an angry kiss.
But it was a promise too.
Then he turned me to face the void. He wrapped his arms around my waist and bumped his hip against mine to urge me forward until my toes were hanging over the void.
I leaned out again and raised my hand.
“Attach,” I said.
* * *
Magic-mine streaked skyward. She twisted herself around the tree’s gnarled base. Once. Twice. I gave her a tug. Shale coursed down. The cedar tilted, canting toward the drop, then held. I was putting my trust in a taproot.
Seemed to be a theme.
I swallowed and manufactured a smile. “Swing me, big boy.”
“Hold your breath, sweetheart,” he said into my ear. “And don’t scream when you fall. I don’t want Qae to hear you go.”
And then he did exactly what he said he would. He played Frisbee with me.
I swung out.
Air, tree blurring, rocks, rocks.
And I let go.
I did not scream. I just fell, for what felt like forever. And then I hit—the surface of the big pool, not the boulder, the water soft and airy bubbles—and I slipped under the churning water. So cold that I wanted to gasp and cry.
I was the sock; the pool was the old-style washing machine. Upside, downside, and all-round side, it tumbled me.
Until finally it spat me out.
* * *
He’d asked me to let the current carry me—I had. Once my head broke the surface, I was flotsam, and I’d not cried out as I’d plummeted twice more, nor sobbed as my body was ground over rock beds and was pummeled against stone walls. I’d let the river tributary carry me away until I couldn’t stand being taken any farther from him; then I’d pulled myself out of the water.
Someone was making small little noises—broken breathy heh-heh-hehs.
I found a bush big enough to qualify as cover. I ducked under it and crouched on the backs of my heels. Then shivering, I wrapped my arms around myself and looked way up. I couldn’t see the falls over the trees above me, but if I leaned back I could see the place where we’d stood, and the mountain, and the outcrop of boulders and ridges or rock that Trowbridge had chosen over the long fall.
And I could see the cloud. A traveling smear of dark purple glitter and glints, tracking something that was already moving quickly toward the craggy cliffs.
Maybe that’s when the animal within me started to take over, though I didn’t realize it then. I shuddered at the cloud and the dark, and then I turned to do what he’d told me to do—because every other action made a mockery of my choice and his—and I made tracks.
I ran, trying not to make a noise, trying not to cry. Trying not to stumble.
I ran in the opposite direction from the cloud.
I ran, thinking that’s what I needed to do.
You can’t outrun your destiny.