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Rhys had kept the promise he'd given his brother about the leisurely pace of his journey. In actuality, the first day he'd spent in the saddle had reminded him of exactly how long it had been since he'd ridden any distance at all.
He had reached the inn at Buxton in the early afternoon, more than willing to continue the longer portion of his trip on the following day. His godfather's invitation, issued some weeks ago, had been open-ended, and despite Rhys's outward show of confidence, he had been concerned enough about his stamina to phrase his acceptance in like terms.
He was pleased that, despite the protest of sore muscles, he'd been up and on his way fairly early the next morning. The crisp autumn air had been an elixir for the ennui of the last few months. As had the beauty of the downs, still green despite the turning leaves.
A shout brought his mount's head up and Rhys's wandering attention back to the present. A young girl, screaming something unintelligible, ran across the meadow below him.
Instinctively his eyes swept the countryside behind her. There was no sign of pursuit.
Rhys's gaze then tracked across the area in front of the running girl, where he quickly discovered the object of her concern. A child, her long pale hair streaming behind her like a banner, flew across the rough ground.
His lips lifted in response, remembering his own childhood. A day such as this had too often lured him from his studies. He had been older than this little girl, and he had usually paid the price for his escapades with a hiding from his tutor, but he had always considered those rare tastes of freedom to have been well worth the pain.
Almost idly, he considered the landscape that stretched in front of the child. As he did, the reminiscent smile faded.
From his vantage point, it was apparent that the field she flew across ended abruptly at a steep escarpment, one of many scattered throughout the area. The land rose slightly just before its edge and then fell away as if sliced by a giant's knife. Below the drop-off, the shining surface of the rain-swollen stream glinted in the morning sun.
His eyes flicked back to the child, who was now toiling up the rise that led to the cliff. There was no way she could see what lay beyond. And no way, he realized, his gaze tracking backward, that the bigger girl running behind could intercept her before she reached the precipice.
As soon as he reached that conclusion, Rhys dug his heels into his mount's flanks. Startled, his brother's bay leaped forward, taking the slope at a dangerous pace. As soon as they reached the meadow, Rhys crouched low over the gelding's neck, urging him to an even greater speed. They raced diagonally across the expanse of flat ground, Rhys's eyes focused on that distant gleam of blonde hair.
Despite the best efforts of the horse, they seemed to move as slowly as in a dream. Or a nightmare.
The child came closer and closer to the edge as Rhys's heart hammered in his ears, drowning out the pounding hooves of the beast that strained beneath him. He was aware almost subliminally that the older girl continued to scream, which had no more effect than before.
Rhys pressed his mount on, feeling its muscles begin to tremble beneath him. As he closed the distance between them, the object of his frantic chase evinced no awareness of his pursuit. She ignored horse and rider as completely as she ignored the importuning cries of her caregiver.
As the little girl neared the lip of the rise, Rhys balanced his weight to the left, preparing to lean down and pick her up on the run. He had no other choice. She would be over the edge before he had time to dismount. And despite the noise they were making, she still seemed oblivious to their approach.
Guiding his horse on a course parallel to the treacherous edge of the cliff, he leaned to the side as he drew near, stretching out his left arm.
Despite the pain of that movement, he was determined to grasp the child's clothing and snatch her away from danger. He added his own warning shouts to those of the nursemaid, but she continued to ignore both.
His heart lodged in his throat, Rhys knew it would be a matter of inches. One chance to catch hair or fabric before the child's headlong rush carried her over the cliff.
As he prepared for the attempt, the little girl turned, finally reacting to his presence. He watched her blue eyes stretch impossibly wide when she caught sight of the horse.
In that split second, Rhys's straining fingers touched the back of her dress. As she dodged away from his reaching hand, the ground beneath her seemed to give way, sending her tumbling over the edge.
The gelding was close enough to the precipice that Rhys could feel the crumbling earth shift under its weight. Frantically, he turned his mount aside. As soon as they were back on solid ground, he pulled the horse up. He had dismounted before their forward motion stopped. Running back to the place where the child had disappeared, he peered over.
The height was not so great as he'd feared. Below him, caught in the slowly moving current, a foam of white petticoat was clearly visible. The girl's long hair, darkened by its immersion, floated behind.
He examined the bank, desperately searching for a way down. There was none. Other than that which the child had just taken.
His searching gaze found her again in time to see her disappear beneath the surface. Without another second's hesitation, Rhys jumped, following her into the water.
It was far colder than he had expected, even for September. He fought his way to the surface, the weight of his boots pulling against him.
As soon as his head broke free, he began to scan the surface. Kicking, stroking with both arms, unconscious now of the pain and the limited range of motion of the left, he kept himself afloat as he waited for the child's re-emergence.
As soon as he'd spotted her, he began to swim. He had always been a strong swimmer, but as during that frantic race across the meadow, he felt as if he were making little progress.
The little girl was being carried downstream by the current more swiftly than his one-sided stroke could propel him. If she went under again…
Frantic at that thought, he urged his tiring body to a greater effort, one he would not have believed possible only seconds before. There was no time to look for her. He swam by instinct, or by faith, and finally was rewarded.
The fingers of his right hand, extended to the limit of his arm's reach, touched something, only to have it slip away from his grasp. In some diminishing corner of rationality, he knew that what he'd felt might have been anything. A broken limb or some other piece of flotsam.
If it were, then all was lost. The only chance he had to rescue the child was if she were indeed the object his hand encountered. He knew she would not surface again.
Trusting once more to his instincts, Rhys dove beneath the surface, kicking with the last of his strength to force his body deeper. He opened his eyes, straining to see through the silt, and caught a glimpse of something that glittered before him like threads of gold.
He reached for them, strands of her hair gliding through his fingers as she continued to sink. Desperately he closed his fist around a handful.
Once his hold was secure, he began the laborious process of dragging himself and the drowning child to the surface. Sunlight beckoned from above. The same glint that had warned him before of danger now offered the promise of safety. If only he could reach it and then fight the current to shore.
His head finally broke the surface, his mouth open to draw in a gasping, shuddering lungful of air. At the same time, he awkwardly manoeuvered the child's body so that her face, too, was above the water.
She had appeared so small when viewed from above. Now her weight seemed more than his numbed arms and fading strength could manage.
He had come too far to turn back, he told himself, calling on the same determination that had seen him through every danger and deprivation the French could throw at him. He would get her out or die trying.
And he well might, he conceded, when his eyes found the nearer bank. The distance seemed overwhelming, as did the child's weight.
He glanced down at her face. Translucent eyelids, through which he could see a delicate cobweb of veins, hid the blue eyes. The water spiked colourless lashes, which lay like fans against the paleness of her cheeks. Her lips, blue with cold, were open, but no breath stirred between them.
Rhys had seen death more times than he could bear to remember, but never that of a child. And despite the damning evidence before him, he was unwilling to concede this one.
If he hadn't startled her, perhaps she wouldn't have taken that final step toward the edge. Her death would be on his hands, something he was unwilling to live with for the rest of his life.
There was nothing he could do for her here. Her only chance—his only chance—was if he could get her to shore.
Lungs aching with cold and fatigue, he forced his damaged arm around the child's midriff. Then he leaned to his right, almost lying on his side in the water. Using his good arm, he laboriously began to swim toward the bank.
The girl lay practically atop his body, but his hold on her was precarious. Several times he had to stop and grasp her more firmly around the waist. The second time he did, she stirred, coughing a little.
That small sign of life gave him a renewed burst of courage, and he continued to pull himself and his burden across the deadly swiftness of the current. He refused to look at the shore, afraid that the distance remaining would defeat the thread of determination, all that sustained him now. That and the thought that if he let this little girl die, her blood would be eternally on his hands.
He was almost too exhausted to realize what had happened when his hand made contact with the bottom. He turned his head and saw that only a few feet separated him from his goal.
He allowed his feet to drift downward, feeling the silt shift beneath them. Holding the girl now in both arms, he dragged himself from the water. Staggering under the weight of his burden and his own exhaustion, he had taken only a couple of steps onto the verge before his knees gave way.
He attempted to break his fall, but his left hand slid across the slick rocks, throwing him forward. Unable to use his right arm, which was still wrapped around the child, to cushion his landing, his temple struck one of the stones.
The girl he had carried from the water rolled out of his arm to lie beside him. Wide blue eyes, opened now and staring into his, were the last thing he saw before the world faded into oblivion.
Nadya Argentari watched her grandmother sort through the goods in the peddler's wagon. The quick movements of her gnarled fingers expressed contempt for their quality, but the three of them understood that was part of the timeless ritual in which they were engaged. Items would be selected, bartered for and finally accepted with the same lack of enthusiasm the old woman displayed while assessing them.
Having watched this process a hundred times, Nadya lifted her eyes to survey the somnolent encampment. She realized only now that, while she'd been helping her grandmother, the sun had slipped very low in the sky.
Anis should have brought Angel home long before now. Almost before the knot of anxiety had time to form in her chest, Nadya saw the fair hair of her daughter catch the dappled light under the beech trees as she and the girl who had been instructed to take her for a walk moved toward the centre of the Romany camp.
Nadya raised her hand to wave. Angel broke away from her caretaker, running toward her mother and great-grandmother. She threw herself against Nadya's legs, burying her face in her skirts. Laughing, Nadya put her hand on the little girl's head, running her fingers through the colourless silk of her hair.
'Did you have a good walk?' she asked, raising her eyes to the twelve-year-old who trailed behind her charge.
The older girl nodded, her eyes shifting quickly to the old woman, who was still occupied with her examination of the goods in the cart. 'I need to help my mother now. If that's all right, drabarni,' she added deferentially.
Nadya was accustomed to such deference. After all, the Argentari were one of the kumpania's most prominent families, and her own reputation as a healer was unsurpassed among their people.
Nadya had almost nodded permission before she began to wonder why the girl was in such a hurry to be away. Her earlier anxiety resurfaced, causing her to pry her daughter's fingers from her skirt so that she could get a good look at the little girl's face.
The smudges on Angeline's dress and her disordered hair didn't concern her. Released from the confines of the camp, her daughter tended to run wild through the fields that lay just beyond the great forest. Perhaps she'd fallen, and Anis was afraid she would be blamed for the accident.
'Did something happen during your walk?'
The older girl's downcast eyes flew upward. Her mouth opened and then closed, but eventually she shook her head.
'Then why are you lying to the drabarni?'
Until her grandmother's question, Nadya hadn't realized Magda was listening to this. She knew the old woman would be angry to have her bargaining interrupted. Still, Magda had grown to love her great-granddaughter with a fervour that almost matched Nadya's own.
'You think she's lying?' Alerted by her grandmother's observation, Nadya examined the girl's face.
Anis's gaze darted from one to the other, but it was Magda she answered, as befitted the old woman's esteemed position in the tribe. 'Nothing happened. I swear it, chivani.'
'Be careful what you swear to, little one. Tell the truth, and I'll see to it that no blame comes to you.'
'Don't make promises you can't keep,' Nadya warned, kneeling to examine her daughter more carefully.
By now she had recognized that her grandmother was right. For some reason the girl who'd been instructed to look after Angeline was lying.
As Nadya put her hands on her daughter's shoulders, what she had failed to notice earlier became apparent. The child's clothing was damp.
'Why is this wet?' she demanded.
Anis licked her lips. Her eyes moved again to Magda. Whatever warning or promise of succour she saw there convinced her to tell the truth. 'Because she fell into the water.'