~ Chapter 1 ~
Her blade cascaded across the Mongol’s crescent-shaped sword. The sound of scraping metal sent chills down Iana’s back. Their swords locked at the hilt and he pressed into her, his strength crushing her tiny frame. An explosion to her right sent snow and rocks flying through the air. The noise was deafening. The smoke was blinding. Two men crashed into them from the side, scattering people and weapons. Iana hit the ground on her back, rolling away from her enemy and up on her feet to run. No need to fight when you can flee. She didn’t have time to fight the man—she was out of position and late as it was. Abel’s group had already started the fires. She didn’t have much time left.
Iana ran with all the speed she could muster, jumping over rocks, dodging around people locked in battle, slipping on the blood-soaked snows as she went. She landed on her knee, crying out in pain at the impact, pushing off the ground again and back into a run. One breath, two breaths, three breaths— another flash, followed by an explosion above. She tucked to the ground and covered her head. Held her gasp till the debris fragments blew over. Up and running again. One breath, two breaths… Shit! shit! Shittttt…I’m going to be late.
A body pressed into her path, pulling another along with him in the momentum of their fight. She skidded to a stop. The first man plunged his Rambler blade through the Mongol’s body. Marcus appeared in front of her with a triumphant smile on his dirty face. Iana smiled back while she tried to push quickly past him. One breath, two breaths—another flash and more rock and snow raining down. Marcus pulled the little Rambler to him and shielded her from the debris with his body.
“Iana! What are you doing here? You’re going to be late, little mouse.”
“I know!” she yelled back, pushing off his massive body and back into a run for the mountainside. Marcus nodded to her and followed, quickly coming up on her right to deflect and clear her path. Across the field she saw Heliconia, a rich battle smile on her face, her braids flying free in the smoke. She was taller than most men, and even the Mongols seemed intimidated by the beautiful Rambler. The Mentor was alive and fierce as she weaved two swords, one in each hand, cutting down enemy after enemy with Job at her back. Goddess, she loves a good battle. Heliconia was more than just a Mentor to Iana. She was a friend and an inspiration. Just seeing her in battle, fierce and glorious, made Iana straighten up a little higher and sprint a little faster. The Mentor’s spirit was contagious.
Marcus veered off to body tackle a warrior coming at them. Iana’s lungs burned as she ran, but she ignored it. She was almost there. She scanned the side of the canyon. Where is he?
A clump of black shifted at her left. Predators! Two Predator warriors and a flash of white, all of them fighting against the rocks. That had to be him! She shifted towards their direction, her knife in front of her. Smoke and dirt flew across her vision again. She felt the rock fragments slice past her cheeks and draw blood, but she ignored it.
The two Predators pulled away from the boulders, dragging a Mongol along with them. Gideon was alone struggling with an entangled Mongol. Iana pulled her knife high ready to thrust the blade into the back of the Mongol, who was now crouching on top of Gideon. But the snow was ripped out from under her feet before she could strike. A rock solid mass slammed into her from behind. She crashed forward into the snow on her face, the air knocked from her lungs.
The weight on top of her was crushing. She squirmed to get out of the Mongol’s grip while her lungs gasped for oxygen. Her chest was on fire. She felt the enemy on top shift and she pulled her shoulders to the left with all her might. The hood of her coat stayed in place while her body moved, keeping her trapped.
At first she was confused, but then she saw his knife punching through her hood, attaching it firmly to the ground. Iana’s eyes bulged with realization—if she hadn’t moved, it would have been her head under that knife.
Adrenaline ignited in her gut and she kicked out wildly, but the Mongol was huge. His wrist grabbed her blade hand, holding it away. His other fist slammed into the side of her face. She barely had time to shift and absorb his blow. Even so, the force of his punch cracked her head against the ground. A thousand lights burst inside her skull. She felt the rush of blood down her face. Another flash of light. Another explosion. Smoke covering both of them. Coughing on the smoke, Iana grabbed a handful of blood-slick snow and threw it into her foe’s face.
The Mongol had retrieved his knife from her hood during the smoke. His reflexes jerked to deflect the snow and gravel she tossed at him. But his weight never shifted off her as she’d hoped. She was trapped and helpless. She screamed in anger and frustration, as the man shifted his blade over her once more.
Just before the Mongol plunged his blade into her chest, a dark shadow passed over her and slammed into the man. A wave of blood and gore splashed down on her face. She squeezed her eyes and mouth shut, trying not to breath. When she looked up, a Rambler’s blade was thrust deep into her enemy’s throat from behind, protruding through the front and killing him in a bloody gurgle.
Gideon kicked the man off Iana and pulled her up by the arm.
“Sorry, did I interrupt something?”
She gasped for breath, fighting dizziness as she stood. “Nope…we…were…just dancing,” she panted in sarcasm.
“Oh well, he deserved it then. Everyone knows I don’t like you dancing with other men.”
He pulled her to the side of the ridge for security. One hand quickly going up to her face to check that she was okay. She pushed his hands off and grabbed his coat, tugging him into a run after her. She made it into position just in time. Made it—yes!
Gideon crashed into the rock wall next to her, his back to the rocky surface, his body pointed out towards the battle, and his weapon at the ready. His face, like hers, was covered in blood, mud, soot and dirt.
“I thought you were right behind me. What the shit happened to you?” His voice was angry with worry for her.
“I was right behind you,” she shouted back over the noise. “Are you ready for this?”
Gideon nodded once, sheathing his blade, and turned to the mountain cliff. Before they could move, a loud sound penetrated the battle noise. They both froze—she knew that whistling sound. Memories of the nightmarish first battle when the East Hive Ramblers were easily slaughtered came ripping back through her mind. Iana vowed this battle would end differently. With the Predators as their allies, she and the Newhom group would rescue the North Hive Ramblers from the fate her Hive had suffered. She had to save the Ramblers—she just had to. The guilt of being one of the few survivors from the first attack had nearly eaten her alive. How could she go on if another Hive of Ramblers died?
But she knew the sound racing through the air. It haunted her nightmares and sent panic shaking through her limbs. She and Gideon both looked up simultaneously. The air over them shimmered with movement. Iana gasped in shock.
“Incoming!” Gideon yelled, pushing Iana behind him as they dove for some rocks. What felt like a million arrows pounded the ground and cliff face around them. Gideon howled in pain, as one embedded in his calf.
“Gideon!” Iana screamed to him in concern.
He all but smashed her face into the ground with his weight. Shielding her with his body. She couldn’t move without hurting him. She held still and waited for the barrage to end. She could feel his warm breath against her neck. The movement of his lungs beneath his snow coat as he gasped through the pain in his leg. One breath, two breaths, and it was over. Gideon shifted and their faces emerged into light as they looked out over the battlefield.
Predators, Ramblers and even some Mongols lay dead over the field, impaled by enemy arrows.
“No!” Gideon screamed in frustration.
“How can they still be using arrows? This is bad,” Iana said.
She turned to Gideon, holding his arm to give him support as he explored his wounded leg. He was half sitting, half kneeling in the snow, an arrow sticking out of his limb. He brushed off her hands and pushed her away. Iana sucked in a deep breath at the sight. His leg wasn’t bleeding much, yet, but it looked painful. Gideon had his knife back out and in his hands.
“Well, this is definitely not good,” he panted.
A smile crossed her face and she teased, “The leg or the arrows?”
“Both.” His voice was rough, but his evil grin showed her he would be all right.
Iana looked out over the field for direction. She saw Marco and Daniel on the far side, shouting directions as they slashed through the enemy. The grim line of Daniel’s mouth told Iana all she needed to know.
“It’s not going well. We still need to do this,” she yelled at Gideon as she turned to climb the rock face behind her.
“Iana, I can’t climb with you like this.” Gideon gestured to his impaled leg.
She nodded and turned back to the rock. So I’m on my own. It’s okay. You can do this, Iana. You can do this.
“Iana, you can’t climb with those arrows. You’ll be plucked off that rock first chance they get.”
“I have to try.”
“No. Not with arrows flying. That’s not part of the Mentors’ plan. They would never order you to do this.”
“Plans change. I have to try. It’s our only chance—if they get those mounts in here none of us will be able to hold together. Everyone will be lost, just like before.”
She tossed off her gloves and outer coat before grabbing for the rocky surface of the cliff. She braced her feet on a surface and started scaling.
Gideon screamed in frustration below her. She ignored his tantrum and pointed her face up to the sky and climbed. She knew he’d try to protect her backside from below. But he was right: the arrows could take her down easily once the archers spotted her. The wind pulled at her clothes. At least the knit cap was keeping her hair in check as she climbed. Her fingers were already stiffening with the cold as she climbed. She glanced back down at the battlefield and spotted her Mentor. Daniel’s stricken face was looking up at her from the field. Iana’s last thought: if I make it through this alive, he’s going to kill me.
Daniel looked up to the cliff’s face, praying to the Goddess that everything would somehow still go as planned. Every piece of the plan had to go perfectly or every one of them would end up dead. They had no contingencies. And they were out of time. If they didn’t get the cliff pass blocked off, this fight would be over before it started.
An enemy charged at him from the side. He blocked the sword with his Rambler blade and kicked out viciously, his boot impacting with the Mongol’s knee and toppling the man backwards into the snow. Marco was on top of him, stabbing the enemy through the chest with his Predator’s sword.
“Where are your Ramblers? They need to fall the pass now, before mounts push in.”
Marco’s accent was thick, but Daniel was used to it. The Mentor’s eyes scanned the rocky surface for his Ramblers. There were two different sets of fighters assigned to the rocks. He should be able to see at least one set by now. Two pairs of fighters were assigned, in case one set fell in battle. But Daniel couldn’t see any climbers on the rocks yet.
He swore into the snows as he jumped to protect Marco’s back from a lance aimed at him. Marco finished off the enemy in front of him before pivoting to join Daniel in dispatching the man with the lance.
“They are pressing us down into bowl. We should take ground up high,” Marco said.
“Agreed.” They began to climb the tall boulders at their side when a loud, unexpected sound ruffled through the battlefield. Marco and Daniel’s eyes locked in alarm, just before they both dove for cover. Arrows flashed by them, their path leading straight to the cliff’s base. Marco was cursing in multiple Predator dialects and Daniel was no less panicked by the arrows.
The Mongol archers were taken out during the first round of fighting. Daniel sent Abel’s group into the hills to take out the enemy enclave. So where had this new group of archers come from? Was that why there were no climbers on the rocks? Had they already been killed by unexpected arrow fire?
Marco called and pointed towards the cliff face,
“There! A Rambler climbs.”
Daniel looked over his shoulder and followed Marco’s arm to the rocky surface. He searched the surface for a moment before he saw. With her petit small frame, it could be no one other than Iana. But where was Gideon? He would never have left her side. He should be climbing next to her. Unless he was lost in battle already. Daniel’s mind was torn by the possible revelation and what it could mean, both for the current battle plan and for his feelings regarding the little Rambler climbing the rocks by herself.
If Gideon fell in battle, would Iana come back to him? Could she and Daniel be together again? His heart suddenly ached for something he thought he’d put to rest days ago. His mind thrust the selfish thought of Gideon’s death away like the poison it was. It was a horrible thought for a Mentor to have of one of his Ramblers. It was a terrible hope to have as a man. He shook the memory off like a bad foreshadowing wind.
Marco pulled on Daniel’s arm and they both started climbing back to higher ground.
“What is she doing? Rambler can’t climb with arrows fly,” Marco yelled over the battle noise to Daniel.
Another barrage of shafts screamed through the air. The men watched as the small Rambler pushed away from the rock and fell a story back to the safety of ground, bolts pitting the rocks around her. Marco gave Daniel a meaningful look that meant that his Rambler was crazy.
Daniel called to him, “That Rambler is kama-nazi.”
Marco smiled and swore, shaking his head with a malicious glint in his eye. Both men laughed for a moment; then the reality of their desperate situation set in.
Now in a higher position, Daniel directed his men to push forward into position and Marco followed the Mentor’s lead. Even with the joint efforts of the New Home group, the North Hive Ramblers and Marco’s Predator clan, they were still outnumbered by Mongols. If those mounts made it through the pass and into this rock bowl they would lose the battle.
They had to trigger the avalanche and block that pass to keep the mounts out. Rambler climbers had to make it to the traps they’d placed beforehand. But that was impossible with arrow fire barraging the cliff every few minutes. Even so, Daniel and Marco had to continue to act as if their plan hadn’t fallen to complete shit. If somehow they managed to pull all this off, fighters had to be in position to finish the battle and finish it quickly.
Daniel looked up to the hills at the east side of the bowl. He could see Abel rushing across the terrain. He was repositioning his own archers, desperate to take out the enemy arrows. The Mongol bolts had both strength and agility on them. Predator arrows were only superior in distance. Daniel wasn’t sure Abel was close enough to reach them from his position high on the hills. He heard Marco curse again and he reeled around to follow his gaze.
Iana was back on the cliff again. She was still climbing solo and had to know there would certainly be arrow attacks aiming for her as she went. Whether there were no other climbers left, or simply none crazy enough to follow her, Daniel did not know. Iana had to free climb half the way up till she reached the rope lines they’d hidden closer to the top.
The deadly whistle sound flew through the air again, foretelling the arrow storm to follow. Daniel cursed as he watched a barrage of bolts batter against the stones around the climber. Iana curled herself into the smallest ball possible, while clinging to the rocky surface. She was so tiny it was hard for Daniel to see her at this distance. For once her small stature was an advantage in battle. He glanced at Marco, who had looked away, unable to watch. Neither of them wanted to see the Rambler fall to her death.
Daniel held his breath until he could see her moving again. As soon as the bolts bounced harmlessly down the rock face, she sprung back into motion. All but running up the ridged surface as fast as she could climb.
He wanted to order her to stop. His heart screaming inside his chest to force her to return to safety. But he couldn’t. Not just because she was a Rambler, but because if she failed in her mission, they would all die. If she was the last climber left, then she had no choice but to try for the rocks. If it had been Daniel, he would have done the same.
“Mentor, Mongols coming to us. Stay sharp,” Marco warned.
Daniel could see a small group of five fighters making their way towards the two leaders. Their attention riveted on Marco and himself. None of them would matter if Iana couldn’t block the pass. His eyes scanned the hills for Abel again. Marco, noticing Daniel’s attention on the hills, shook his head.
Daniel looked at Marco with desperate eyes.
“Are you sure? Even for Predator arrows? They can’t reach those Mongol archers?”
Marco smiled at him. It was his way, to smile in the face of danger and certain death.
“Too far. To hit us—okay. But too far for Mongols.”
Marco slapped Daniel on the shoulder with a smile at his own joke. Daniel knew it wasn’t just a joke, but the truth. If Abel ordered the Predators on the cliff top to fire, their arrows would only fall on their own men. The Mongols had chosen their ground too carefully. They were truly worthy opponents. Heliconia must be loving all of this, Daniel thought with glee. The thought of his longtime friend, caving partner and fellow Mentor fueled his spirit and he felt a rush of renewed energy.
Marco pushed his blade into the snow, standing it on end. He reached behind his back. A moment later he had his Predator bow in hand. He loosed two bolts at the five Mongols running for them. One man went down, the rest scattered. After a moment of stillness, the enemy slowly continued forward. Marco notched another arrow and the fighters paused. Marco shifted slightly and the men scattered for safety behind boulders. Marco chuckled. Daniel knew their advantage would be short lived. He lifted his Ramblers blade and set his feet. The Mongols would be on them in moments.
A flash caught the Mentor’s eye, pulling his sight up to the top of the ridge. Out of the snow glare appeared three lonely Predator arrows flying down over his and Marco’s heads and straight into the Mongol’s arrow cluster. More Predator arrows followed, in groupings of three. Daniel squinted into the sun. He was just able to make out Abel and two Predator archers on the top of the cliff. They must have run the entire mountain ridge to get into range. No wonder only three of them made it. Most men couldn’t make that run at this altitude, let alone have strength left to pull a steady bolt afterwards. The Mentor was amazed.
“Itch-I! Yes!” Marco screamed encouragement in both languages.
“Nope. Not yet,” Daniel yelled as he grabbed Marco and yanked him back behind a boulder as another barrage of Mongol arrows sang overhead. Marco managed to release his last arrow before Daniel pulled him off his feet. He didn’t hold out much hope the one arrow would hold off the group of Mongols after them.
Abel yelled orders to his Predator archers. He was so angry he could spit, but he had no spit left after the record-breaking run they’d just made to get here. Taking out the Mongol archers was his responsibility and something he’d thought he’d taken care of already. Too damn cocky and optimistic. I should have known better. I’m going to lose the whole goddess-damn battle for us now.
“We have to keep that climber alive, do you hear me? Shoot! By the Goddess, shoot!”
The Predators around him took aim and shot arrows as quickly as they could. Abel cursed under his breath again as another volley of bolts sped across the skies and into the bowl of fighters below. At least they hadn’t targeted the Rambler climbing on the rocks again. He looked down at the small lone climber and cursed. Only one climber left alive to attempt the climb meant the battle below wasn’t going as well as they had hoped.
“We have to get that pass closed. No matter what it costs us,” he yelled to his men.
They were panting with exhaustion, but nodded and strained to pull their bows. Abel drew his own weapon and followed suit. His arm shook with adrenaline and exhaustion the same as his men. He pulled the bowstring back, holding his breath, forcing his arm to be quiet and still before taking aim. The arrow flew from his bow, cutting past the spinning flakes of snow and speeding towards the enemy. A flutter against a rock in the distance and a rickety arrow flung recklessly into the air told Abel he’d made a solid hit to a Mongol. He’d probably hit the man’s shoulder.
“Itch-I!” yelled his fellow archers, and Abel smiled, but then his eyes grew big as he yelled,
“Shit—take cover! Gorr –Ichni, gorr-Ichni!”
The Predators looked at him strangely but followed his lead and ducked down to take cover behind some rocks as arrows flue in their direction. Only a few shafts made it up to their perch on top the cliff against the strong wind currents.
Arrows skidded harmlessly on the ground around them and one of the Predator archer called back to Abel, “Abel-Rambler. You say Goor-Ichni, think it means ‘make safe’. But no. Goor-Ichni, is say ‘to make woman sing sweet song.’ Abel blushed behind the rocks while the other Predators chuckled at his mistake. Damn foreign languages, Abel cursed to himself.
Unfortunately only a few of the arrows were aimed at them. The rest had focused on the small Rambler climbing on the ridge. He looked down at the climber on the adjacent ridge and recognized the Rambler instantly. No other Rambler was so small—it had to be Daniel’s little mouse.
“Unbelievable, she’s still alive and made it to the preset rope-leads,” Abel said.
Iana was looping into the makeshift harness now. They might pull this off yet. Abel just needed to buy her a little more time.
“Well, Goor-Ichni your bows then. Make that wood sing and take out those Mongol archers before it’s too late,” Abel growled at his archers as he sprang from the rocks, a determined expression set on his face. “We’re not losing this battle because of me.” He cursed into the snow as he pulled his bow back to fire again and again and again.
Iana’s fingers burned with the cold. She should have kept her gloves on, but then she would’ve had gripping issues. Between fear, exhaustion, and adrenaline, she thought she felt warm, but the shaking in her legs and arms reminded her that she was probably cold instead. The wind pulled at the knitted hat on her head, threatening to pull it off her long hair. A small part of her heart wanted to be that hat and be carried far away from this battle and the problems that came with it. To just let go and have the artic winds blow her somewhere else where she could be at peace, calm, and quiet. But she couldn’t do that. She had to save her fellow Ramblers and make sure her sister, Aster, and little niece, Lily, were safe and happy. She was a Rambler and she needed to finish her mission and do her duty.
She dug her hands into the cold rock overhead, wiggling her fingers past the snow and ice that covered a small crack, and jamming her hand deeper. She made a tight fist and pulled hard against it, making sure her grip could hold her weight—it did. She pushed up from the ball of her right foot where it caught against a low ridge and moved another foot over the rocky surface. She really wanted to get to the preset ropes as soon as possible. Once harnessed in, she could maneuver much faster against those arrows.
A rumble started in the distance. Iana strained her ears: past the loud pulse of her own heartbeat, she could hear it. She could hear Abel yelling to his men up on the adjacent ridge too. They’re coming. That noise is the Mongols’ mounts. They’re coming through the pass because I haven’t stopped them. We’re all going to die because I failed. She pushed against the wall with double effort, taking risks she wouldn’t ordinarily take. She wanted speed. She wanted for this to be over, so she could go curl up behind a rock somewhere and wait out the rest of the battle. Without the joking camaraderie of the other Ramblers, fear was eating away at her belly. She felt nauseous and was pretty sure pitching her stomach while clinging to a cold wet rock wouldn’t turn out well.
She misjudged a hand grip just as her foot reached up for another hold. Her hand came loose and slid down past her face. She hovered in midair just a moment, before she started to slide down the semi-sheer face. A cry of anger and fear tore through her. She tightened her left fist, hoping it could hold her full weight. As the force jarred her shoulder, her scream of fear turned to one of pain. Her feet kicked around, desperate to find a grip once again. Anything to keep her from falling. She felt the skin on her fist slide back, followed by the burn of blood as it coated her fingers. Blood that would make her already doubtful grip even more slippery. Feet skittering and fingers gripping, Iana cursed her weakness and her hastiness. You also need to stay attached to the rock long enough to trigger the trap, dumbass; otherwise what is the point of all this? Keep your head together. Deeper breaths, slower breaths, and for the love of frost, calm down.
She forced herself to stop thrashing about in panic and to calmly still her limbs and move with precision. Chanting softly to herself and the snow—“Don’t fall… don’t fall… don’t fall”—memories of young Nathanial blinded her mind. The Apprentice’s body slipping from her outstretched hand to fall to his death. She’d climbed a cliff that day too, although she hadn’t known how to climb very well back then. Nathanial had teased her during battle to keep her fear at bay.
“You really aren’t very good at climbing, you know.”
Iana screamed back in mock frustration, “Training for rock climbing isn’t till the next lunar!”
Nathanial kept the banter up in a lighthearted voice, but when Iana looked his way she could see his eyes were closed against the cold and pain of his injuries. He was shaking hard as he tried to hang on. She needed to get to him soon. She tried to increase her pace.
“I’m just saying…that you might want to work on that when we get back to the Hive, if you want to be a Rambler,” he teased.
“I’m beginning to rethink that occupational choice at the moment,” Iana confessed, only half joking.
Nathanial laughed into the wind this time. “Aha! I knew you didn’t really want to make this run with me today,” he joked.
“Haven’t you bled to death yet?” Iana countered sarcastically and Nathanial laughed out loud. It was good to hear him laugh.
Iana wished she could hear him laugh again, but he was long dead now. The sting of losing Nathanial that day rolled under her skin, fresh as the day it had happened. She burned with anger.
“I will not lose another Rambler. Not today!”
Her feet and right hand found grips again. Her mind snapped back and she could feel the cold stone against her hands once more. She rested her face on the cold surface for a whisper of a moment and thanked the snows.
She heard the whistle of arrows in the air again and turned with dread. She wasn’t in a good position to take cover at the moment. But they weren’t headed for her this time. For once they were either pivoted down into the fighters below or up at Abel and his men above. She pushed up again and again, searching for hand and foot holds as she went, her eyes trained on the rope leads above that seemed to taunt her. The closer she got to them, the farther out of reach they seemed to appear. Her fear screamed at her to move faster and her head barely kept her limbs in smooth careful control.
She had enough focus to spare a look at Abel’s small group above. They were shooting arrows as fast as they could pull them, trying to protect her, trying to distract the Mongols. She knew another volley of Mongol arrows was aiming for her even as she climbed. It was just a matter of time, time that she was running out of very quickly. The roar of the mounted riders was growing louder. An ordinary Rambler would pray to the Goddess about now, but Iana didn’t believe in the Goddess anymore, not since her parents, her first love, Jacob, and then Nathanial had one-by-one died on her, so she cursed the snows instead.
Her hands finally reached the pre-set ropes. She’d just started to loop herself into the makeshift harness when she heard Abel call a warning to his men—then the song of arrows was in the air again. She tucked herself into a ball and tried to smash herself behind a small indent in the ledge. Arrows pelted around her with force, sending chips of rock and snow scattering about. A sharp sting cut across her cheek and she pushed herself further into the rocks with a cry of fear. Squeezing her eyes closed as tightly as she could, she clung to the rope till it was over.
The Mongol archers had her distance marked now. She knew she wouldn’t escape another round of arrows. She had to trigger the avalanche before the next wave caught her. Her hands shook with cold and fear as she tied herself into the ropes. Her right hand snaking into the pre-made slipknot, it tightened over her wrist as soon as she pulled. It practically cut off her circulation, but it would hold her full weight if she needed it to. Her left leg snaked into the larger loop and rested just under her butt. She felt a million times more secure tied into the ropes and, more importantly, she was now more mobile. She let the ropes take her weight. Tucking her legs under her, she put her feet on the face of the boulder and pushed against the rock wall. Now she could stand, leaning perpendicular to walk across the surface of the rocks, her arms using the lead rope to counterbalance her weight.
Iana looked down. The distance and angle of her body made her a little dizzy. She shook her head to clear her focus and fixed her gaze on her target. One tentative step against the surface, then another and another. She needed to get the feel of walking against the stone at this angle because she would be running across it once she triggered the trap.
The sounds of the Mongols’ mounts were stronger now; she increased her pace. Don’t fall…Don’t fall…Don’t fall. She reached the Predator trap faster than anticipated. Once she pulled the supporting stake away, an avalanche of rock and snow would come crashing down. The pole was made of that strange smooth Predator substance, like the thin gray rope they’d slip-lined across days ago. It felt a little like the metal used in their Rambler blades, but different somehow. How something so thin could hold such weight, Iana still couldn’t understand. The support stake was holding up tons of rock and snow. No wooden post could accomplish that. She put a hand on the support pole and screamed in pain, as her skin instantly attached to the post. The cold surface of the post was slightly wet from the snow, and as soon as Iana’s skin touch its cold surface, her fingers seemed to fuse to it painfully. She ignored the pain and pulled.
The stake shook and wiggled in her hands. Pain radiated up her arms, sending tears streaming down her face and a gasp bursting from her lips. Her mind screamed at her to release the stake, but she held on instead. She had no choice: there was no contingency and she was completely alone on the side of the cliff and out of time. She planted one foot at the base of the rock and ripped the post free with all her might. It pulled from the rock with a scraping sound. Small patches of her skin clung to the post, bloody and frozen. She tossed the post away, pivoted, and ran.
The rumble of the rock and snow above her began to drum out the sound of the approaching Mongols. All pain in her hands was forgotten as she gripped the scratchy rope and levered herself away from the wall. She had to clear the cliff or risk being caught in the avalanche. She screamed a warning up to Abel, but never stopped to see if he heard her of not. His men were above on the opposite ledge of the pass, safer than she was, but they would still get a lot of snow and debris kicking up on their side.
Her hands were bloody on the rope, making it hard to get leverage. Her legs burned with exhaustion as she tried to run across the rough rock. The snowfall battered her eyes, but she couldn’t rub to clear them. Every step seemed to take forever, every move threatening to make her stumble. She could hear the slide beginning in earnest behind her, gravity building the momentum. The sound was terrifying. She still had half the cliff face to cover before she was safe.
A flash of memory slammed into her mind. The avalanche that took Mathew’s life came rushing back to her. That horrible snow slide that ripped Daniel over the edge and sucked Matthew down into a snowy death. The vision was so strong Iana almost stumbled. The flash was so real it took her breath away. She viciously slashed the memory out of her head and kept running.
She could feel her support rope rubbing against the stone as she ran, scraping and snagging on the rocky wall as she bounced across the surface. It suddenly occurred to her that they hadn’t thought about the rope getting cut by the rocks. It was not a comforting thought. Her eyes locked onto the rope above her, watching for any signs of breaking. She was so distracted by her fear that she almost missed it—the sound of arrows shooting her way.
Their signature whistle sang through the air and Iana looked out just in time to see a large volley headed her way. Time slowed. There was no choice to be made, really. She couldn’t stop running. If she stopped, she’d be dead anyway. She increased her pace and gritted her teeth. It was harder to hit a moving object; maybe running would save her. She heard screaming but couldn’t tell if it was her voice or someone else’s. Arrows rebounded off the rocks around her. There seemed to be a million of them. Wood splinters flew through the air as they shattered on impact. She felt an arrow graze her hip, but she kept running. The vibration of the avalanche behind her shook the cliff, making it harder to run without slipping. All she could hear was the impact of the arrows around her and the roar of the avalanche behind her. All she could see was her death dashing towards her.
Then in a split second it seemed to end. The main barrage of arrows spent. Time slowed again and Iana’s mind leaped with joy. It was a miracle. It was impossible. She’d actually made it through. She was still alive and stumbling across the cliff face. The roar of the trap behind her started to cascade down the mountain. She had only a few feet left to run and she’d be safe. There was still enough time. She was going to make it after all. A smile stretched across her features and a dash of sunlight caught her eye, the beautiful stream of light peeking around the overcast cloud cover. She took a breath to scream a victory prayer to the snows for saving her. But as she sucked the burning cold air into her lungs, she was savagely jerked back.
Her left shoulder was slammed back into the rock, knocking the air from her body. A sickly sucking sound registered in Iana’s mind as she realized an arrow had just sunk into her shoulder. Her body was flung against the rock face. Her feet leaving the surface and flying free.
The only thing keeping her from falling to her death was the rope she was tied into. Her right arm was all but ripped out of its socket by the movement, but there wasn’t time for the pain to register in her mind. The back of her head had smashed into rock and now stars flashed before her eyes. She struggled to gulp in air to her starving lungs.
Get up! Get up and keep running. Keep running, her mind screamed at her. But her body no longer obeyed her command. Time stilled and she realized she was out of time. The reality of her situation struck like lightning. I’m not going to make it.
She blinked once and real time started again in full force. The sounds were deafening and the pain excruciating. Iana focused on taking short gasping breaths against the pain. She tried to take just one full breath before the end came, but she failed. A flash of white fell over her eyes as the snow and dust from the avalanche overtook her. Her body was flung out, free from the rocky surface and dangling by the one thin rope that kept her alive. Then her body was enveloped by a sea of grey snowy ice.
She was blind, but flashes of memories came to her: Nathanial falling away from her with one outstretched hand, of Daniel’s body disappearing from her sight as he was sucked over the ledge, and of Matthew vanishing in a cloud of white. When her body impacted with the rock again, her small frame was pushed and dragged mercilessly across the serrated surface of the cliff. She felt her forehead make impact against the hard stone, then only darkness.
Daniel’s eyes registered Iana just as the arrow ripped into her body and slammed her into the rock.
“Nooooo!” he heard a voice rip roughly through the air.
By the raw feeling in his throat it must have been his own, but he couldn’t register it. He saw her body disappear, caught up in the shockwave of the ice and tossed across the solid rock wall as if she were a doll. Ice, rock and snow flew down the ledge, covering the pass below and blocking passage of the enemy. A large cloud of smoky frost and debris rose over the mountainside.
When it cleared, Daniel could see the little rambler hanging limp and perfectly still, tangled in the ropes, twirling about in the wind, her lifeless hand and leg still tied into the support rope. It was the only thing keeping her from falling. An arrow still protruded from her left arm and her hair was free and flying wildly around her. He could just make out the red stains soaking down her body, spreading through the white of her clothing.
His entire body went cold. He gasped at the feeling of his heart being physically ripped from his chest. The sound of her heartbeat was the only thing he heard. His eyes willed her to move, to show him any sign that she was still alive. For four heartbeats, he couldn’t remember how to breathe. He couldn’t move; his limbs were simply immobile with grief and fear. He was beginning to think the sound of the avalanche had deafened him, till Marco’s voice shot him loose of the stupor.
“She did it. Now the pass blocked, we have good chance to save Ramblers.”
Daniel ripped his eyes off Iana and back to the warrior at his side. He saw the same look of sadness for the small Rambler in the Predator leader’s eyes. Marco rested a hand on Daniel’s shoulder for a brief second, then nodded and pulled the Mentor back into the fight. Even if she was alive, Daniel was too far away to help. She would freeze to death in that wind before he could reach her. There was nothing either leader could do to help the small woman swinging limp on the side of the cliff. Daniel spared one last look up to the ledge before shutting his mind and heart off to her and refocusing back on the fight ahead of them. He had Ramblers to lead and the fight was far from over.