Chapter Thirteen

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The scream almost didn't wake Distya, shrouded as it was in the bubbling of the river and dampened by the rising mist. The sound blended with the shrieks of the disenchanted birds in the bushes — a piercing chorus denouncing the gloomy weather. It was the combination of the noise and the first drops of rain that jarred her upright, and Rinnet's absence threw her to her feet. Leaving her shoes and armor behind, she fought through the fog in her head to listen, pitching toward the river as she heard a second subdued cry.

She stopped short of the edge, digging her toes into the precipice. There was nothing to see. She had to get closer, but the increasing rain poured down the slope in rivulets and cast darkness over the banks. Her best bet was the willow, looming over the depths a few feet away. Crags of shale sprouted through the erosion, and Distya stepped across them onto the firmer ground between the slippery roots. Bracing against the narrow, twisting trunk, she shed her sword and the knives, anything that might weigh her down should she slip. She crept close to the edge. Crouching low, she peered over and watched as a hand burst out of the current.

Distya tried to scramble back, but her feet lost purchase on the slick roots and the hand pulled her in. She rolled into the motion, somersaulting forward in an attempt to loosen the grip around her wrist. Her eyes clamped shut against the grains of silt. It was too dense to see through, so the hand was her only sense of orientation. When it didn't release her, she kicked at it.

The fourth kick connected, heel against bone, and the hold on her wrist let go. Distya tumbled into the current for a few short seconds until a grasp tightened around her calf and yanked her to a halt. It slipped down around her ankle but held firm.

Distya tried to swim against the current, fold forward and pull herself to the hands around her leg, but even she could not fight the raging wall of water. It was hard enough to stay near the surface against the battering rapids. She writhed and twisted to no result but her own increasing exhaustion.

She focused to slow her slamming heartbeats, but the effort to stay afloat absorbed her energy and emptied her lungs at an alarming rate. She could reach the surface for short breaths between kicks, but the sloshing of the waves and her own struggling poured as much water into her mouth as air. She would have to break free soon or drown.

Her attacker had to breathe, too. If Distya could get enough air to hold her breath for a while, she could try to swim down and pull the hand with her.

At the moment Distya could think of nothing but survival, but given time she would have recognized the short, pointed fingers, seen the unmistakable streaks of red just above the current. But deep under the struggle to live she knew. Swimming down, as far as she could go and for as long, would be her best bet.

Every muscle tensed as Distya prepared for one last kick to the surface. She needed somewhere to plant her feet, maybe the assailant's body, but no matter what she did she couldn't feel anything beyond the hand. She struck out with her free leg once or twice more to find something — the arm, a torso — but nothing made contact. The viselike hands remained locked around her ankle. Stranger still, the river had not swept her any further down since the attacker latched onto her ankle. Something was anchoring them in place. If Distya could find what it was and grab hold...

She cleared the surface with a powerful pull and began to take a breath when she was jerked back, hard. Water filled her nose and eyes and leaked into her throat. She coughed and inhaled on reflex, sucking more water into her lungs and drawing a dark haze into her mind. There came a faint awareness that one of the hands on her leg had let go, but it was followed by a sharp pain to the back of her skull and the cold feeling of drifting in her own head.

She had the faint sensation of dragged partway onto the sloping shore — thrust, really, her back slashed by the exposed rock — and lying there, choking on the water in her throat. The pouring rain made it feel as if she were still in the river. Something crawled up onto the bank, stumbling past her through the mud and coughing all the while. Fear motivated Distya to resist the lure of unconsciousness. She reconnected with her muscles and rolled to her side, forced her remaining strength into propping herself up.

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