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The wind-driven snow was no longer an icy scourge against her cheeks, but the gentle caress of a lover. Her arms and legs felt warmer, and that hot jolt of agony she’d experienced with every step had diminished too. Oh, God, did that mean she was freezing to death?
The fear of death brought her an agony worse than the physical torment of the extreme cold and deep exhaustion of her trek. She shook her head in a childish gesture of negation: How stupid of her even to entertain such a question. Of course she wasn’t freezing. She’d almost reached the foothills of this horror of a mountain, and the flickering lights below were no figment of an imagination about to be extinguished! Those lights should be coming from the village she was looking for, the village she remembered from the map she’d studied until every line, every squiggle, had been burned into memory.
She couldn’t give up now that she was almost safe. She’d known it wouldn’t be easy. She’d chosen to make her escape over the mountain instead of along the more civilized valley road, in the hope that Danilov would think it unlikely she’d choose such a difficult and dangerous route and would explore the more simple avenues first. But she hadn’t bargained on the snowstorm that had struck just as she’d crested the summit of the mountain.
Well, ironically, there was no question she was safe from Danilov now, she realized. Even he wouldn’t venture into the Andes in a snowstorm to capture his runaway prima ballerina. Undoubtedly he’d prefer to have her caught and sent back to Russia to be imprisoned in the Lubyanka as an example to other would-be defectors. Still, she reasoned, her death on this awesome mountain would suit Danilov’s purposes almost as well. Collectively and individually the dancers in the company had been warned that there would be no Baryshnikovs or Godunovs defecting to the West on this tour and further tarnishing the image of the Cultural Department.
Her feet were so numb now that it was as if they didn’t exist, but she could see a trickle of blood oozing from the torn foam rubber of her left shoe. She supposed she’d better stop and wrap something around it. If only it had been safe to bribe one of the servants at the lake resort, where the company had been resting before moving on to Santiago, to buy her a pair of hiking boots. But Danilov surely would have learned of the purchase and guessed her plan. The sharp rocks and rough trail had ripped the soles of her shoes before she was even halfway up the mountain. Now, pain shooting from her lacerated feet up through her legs and into her belly and back, she wondered if avoiding the risk of getting the boots had been worth the price of fleeing without them.
She shrugged impatiently as she realized she was whimpering like a child for what might have been. There was no if, there was only the moment. She must accept that if she was going to fight her way through this storm and get off this blasted mountain. After all, it couldn’t be so much farther. All she had to do was to put one foot in front of the other. But every step she took brought a stabbing agony to her chest, and her lungs were laboring as if she were running instead of stumbling like a blind woman. She gritted her teeth. One step after another. She couldn’t let this damn mountain defeat her. She was strong. Her dancers body was strong. The pain would go away. All pain went away … eventually. Who should know that better than she?
She was weaving, stumbling. She paused, slumping against the trunk of a tree. Suddenly her pain did seem to be gone, replaced by a comforting drowsiness. She looked back. Her tracks in the snow revealed a dizzy succession of circles. What an intricate and beautiful pattern her dragging steps had made. A sensation of warmth suffused her, and along with it a rush of longing for sleep. Warmth. Sleep. She pulled herself to her full height.
The warmth was death, the desire to sleep was death. It was not life holding out its arms to her, but death. She forced herself to move.
Think of life. One step after another. The lights were much closer, weren’t they? Life. Think of life.
Wind chimes in her mother’s garden. Laughter. The final exultant grand jeté. The stuff of life. Why couldn’t she think of more things to add to the list? Her mind was as sluggish as her body. It didn’t matter. She had enough to go on for now.
She concentrated on the wind chimes … and, faintly, their tinkling music played for her.
One more step. And another … another.
She experienced the exuberance that always accompanied a well-executed grand jeté: the joyous sensation a bird must know as it headed for the sky.
And she moved more swiftly, on a more direct course. She would not stop to sleep, when she had all that waiting for her just a little way down the path.
Path? Oh, Lord, it was a path, and there was a cluster of cottages just ahead. Why did her knees feel so weak, when she wanted to run down that path toward those lights that were now so blessedly close? The snow was piled in soft, fleecy drifts here in the valley, and it was even harder to walk than it had been on the rougher terrain of the mountain. She mustn’t stop. She doubted if she’d have the strength to get back on her feet if she fell into one of those cushiony drifts.
Then she was stumbling blindly up to a rough wooden door and her fist was pounding with a strength that was frantic with urgency.
The door was opened so abruptly, she had to grab the doorjamb to keep from falling into the room. The eyes of the plump, dark-haired woman who stood shivering in the door widened in surprise. “Madre de Dios!”
She had practiced the words in Spanish so many times. Why was her mind a complete blank now? “Me llamo Tania Orlinov.” That was right, but her voice was no more than a hoarse whisper. What if the woman couldn’t hear her? Her gloved hands fumbled at the money belt beneath her jacket and finally got it off. She held it out to the woman, who was staring at her with an expression approaching horror on her face. She tried again. “Por favor. Embajada americana. Santiago.” Why didn’t the woman say something? She couldn’t hold the darkness off much longer. Then the woman was joined at the door by a little boy, who stared at her with big dark eyes almost as frightened as his mother’s.
“Por favor, me llamo Tania …” She’d said that, hadn’t she? “Embajada de los Esta …”
The darkness came down like a black velvet curtain as she pitched forward into the room. The woman’s voice was barely audible behind the curtain as Tania’s slight body was pulled into the room. It was a soothing croon, almost as musical as a wind chime. “Pobrecita, morir tan joven.”
Joven. That was young, wasn’t it? She wasn’t all that young. She’d be twenty-one soon. Morir—to die. The woman thought she was going to die! Tania felt a wave of indignation. Didn’t that woman realize that after all she, Tania Orlinov, had gone through she wasn’t about to be beaten now!
She pushed the curtain aside for a moment to open her eyes and gaze up at the woman’s worried face. “No muerte,” she said firmly, despite the weakness of her voice. Then, as the Spanish woman continued to stare at her with that maddeningly mournful expression, she added, “No muerte. I will not die.” The woman stared at her blankly. “I will not give up. I have—” What was the word for strength in Spanish? She gave up and used the Hungarian word of her childhood. “I have erő.” Her dark eyes blazed with incandescent vitality for a moment, then the velvet curtain descended once more and her eyelids fluttered shut.