Royce opened his eyes, aware of the silence surrounding him, strange and eerie after the avalanche’s deafening thunder.
Gentle flakes of fresh white drifted down from the clouds. The craggy peaks soaring above appeared the same, the sky unchanged. It was as if nature had failed to notice the chaos on the mountainside.
Failed to care whether the human beings below survived.
Ciara. He lifted his head, thought to call out for her—then stopped himself. Looking up the slope, he sought any trace of the rebel he suspected had caused the avalanche, or accomplices the bastard might have had. He saw no one.
No doubt they had fled to a place of safety after starting it, confident that the snow would do their lethal work for them. He dared not call out and alert them that their treacherous plan had failed.
His lips twisted in a snarl as the desire for retribution heated his blood. From some deep reserve, he found the strength to push to his feet.
Half dazed, he turned fully around, trying to orient himself. He had been carried out the western end of the pass and halfway down the slope. He was standing on ground that he and Ciara had covered earlier, little more than an hour ago, as they rode up the mountainside.
Except that now, the easily followed path had been transformed into an expanse of deep drifts.
And Ciara would be on the opposite side of the mountain. When the avalanche struck, Anteros had been carrying her away from him, toward the east.
He started moving upward, as fast as he could, whispering a prayer that his swift destrier had had time to get her out of the pass before the torrent of snow reached them. If not—
Nay, he would not think of the possibilities. His heart filled his throat at the idea of Ciara—slender, delicate Ciara—buried as he had been. She would not have the strength to get free.
He kept his eyes on the summit, forcing his way through the drifts, ignoring his wounds, the blood, the pain. Hampered by the shifting snows beneath him, he made frustratingly slow progress back to the top.
It took what felt like an hour to reach the place where he had seen her last, in the middle of the silent, empty pass between the towering cliffs—the very spot where he had joked with her about his epitaph.
Despite the fact that he was already chilled to the bone, the memory sent a fresh shudder through him.
Finally he reached the opposite end of the gap, where the eastern opening spilled into a long, gentle slope.
But as he stood there, breathing hard, staring out across the smooth expanse of white, he saw no sign of her.
“Ciara!” Her name tore from him before he could hold it in, and echoed back from the cliffs, as if the empty valley below were mocking him.
She was gone.
He clenched his fists, shaking his head in denial, fury. Guilt. He never should have stopped in this place. Should have been thinking of her safety rather than her comfort. God’s blood, he was her guardian, her protector, and he had failed her.
He staggered forward a step, then another, glaring out over the blinding field of smooth, unmarked snow—with no idea where to start looking for her. If she was trapped beneath the drifts, he would have only minutes to… only minutes…
Nay, she would already be dead. In the time it had taken him to get back to the top of the pass, she would have suffocated.
He sank to his knees, unprepared for the force of the anguish that hit him at the thought that Ciara was lost forever. He lifted his face to the heavens, furious that he had been spared while she…
“Nay!” he shouted, the word booming into the slate-gray sky.
Again the icy cliffs sent his own voice echoing back to him. But this time, he also heard another sound. Soft, distant. Familiar.
And not human.
He turned his head to see his horse limping up the south end of the slope toward him—with his saddle askew.
Royce was on his feet and running headlong down the slope before he completed the thought. Paying no heed to the agony that shot through his left leg, he closed the distance in what felt like the span of a single pounding heartbeat. His stallion was lame, favoring his left foreleg. He caught Anteros’s reins, examined the twisted saddle.
It appeared his destrier had escaped the worst of the avalanche, for their packs and weapons had received only minor damage, and Hera’s basket was intact—though it was empty.
Only Ciara’s delicate mandolin had been broken, snapped in two. And there was no clue of what had happened to Ciara.
If she had been swept from Anteros’s back by the snow, she might not have been carried down the slope but into the mountainside.
Which was almost worse. She could have been slammed into the rock. Killed by the impact.
Curses tumbling from his lips, Royce left his stallion to rush down the hillside, retracing the horse’s steps, following the hoofprints that led up from the valley. Hope twisted through him. Agonizing hope. “Ciara!”
Answer me. Please, God, she cannot be dead.
Royce quickly came to the end of the tracks, to a crushed place in the snow. It looked as if his destrier had fallen to the ground here rather than higher up the mountainside. But had Ciara still been on his back? Had she been swept from the saddle? Where…
He heard a sound, lifted his gaze, felt his heart stop. A few yards away, through a scattering of pine saplings, he could see the sharp, sheer edge of a cliff.
The tiny mongrel stood at its edge, whining softly.
Not breathing, not even blinking, Royce moved toward the precipice and gazed down numbly, expecting to see Ciara’s broken body at the bottom of the gorge.
Instead, the sight that greeted him made him shout a strangled exclamation of gratitude and terror. “Sweet holy Jesus!”
She was just a few yards beneath him, caught in a tangle of branches and roots that protruded from the rock. The boughs had broken her fall, caught her like a baby bird tumbled from its nest. She lay unmoving, unconscious, her loose hair and long cloak tangled around her.
He was not even sure she was still alive. The puppy dashed back and forth, barking and whining, as he flattened himself at the top of the cliff, leaning down, stretching out a hand toward Ciara. But he knew he could not reach her from here. The distance was too great.
And he could not tell whether she was breathing.
His mouth dry with fear, he pushed to his feet. She might weigh no more than a length of silk, but if she awoke, if she moved, if one of the branches broke…
He darted a glance at the bottom of the gorge far below—so distant he could make out naught but huge, sharp chunks of ice and boulders.
“Nay,” he swore fiercely. “I will not lose you.”
His heart thundering against his ribs, he scooped up the dog and turned from the edge of the cliff, running back toward Anteros, up the hillside, the ascent made easier by the path he had cut through the drifts in his mad rush down the slope.
His left leg burned and hurt. The wind cut mercilessly through his slashed tunic. But he paid no attention. When he reached Anteros, the stallion whickered in fear and in pain, but Royce had no time to soothe him.
He put the puppy in her basket and tied it securely shut. “Thank you for helping me find your mistress, Hera. You can best help her now by staying out of the way.” Grabbing his pack, he tore it free from its fastenings and found his climbing gear—ropes, boots, pickax.
He quickly changed into the boots, then secured one of the ropes around his waist with expert knots. Studying the slender pines at the edge of the cliff, he cursed.
None of the saplings would be sturdy enough to support his weight and Ciara’s together. His rescue was over before it had even begun.
Jaw clenched, he turned to his destrier. Bent down and ran his hands over the stallion’s injured foreleg. It was not broken.
The idea might work. It was insanely dangerous, but he had no other choice.
“I am sorry, old friend,” he said tightly as the horse shied from his touch. “I know it hurts, but I have need of your help.”
Refusing to think of the risk, of the horse’s pain or his own, he grabbed the reins and led Anteros to the edge of the cliff.
He took just enough time to remove the saddle and its heavy load before fashioning a harness, using two ropes, looping both around Anteros’s withers and broad chest and under his belly.
“Easy, my brave lad.” He tried to keep his voice soothing, though his pulse and thoughts were racing. “Hold your ground and be steady. I need you to be our anchor.”
He picked up the free end of the second rope, gathered the slack into a circle, and slung it over his shoulder.
Then he paused just long enough to stare into Anteros’s dark eyes as he dropped the reins to the ground. He had never attempted anything like this in his life. But his stallion’s strength and courage had saved his neck in battle more than once. He could only pray that those same qualities would keep him and Ciara alive now.
“Do not fail me, old friend,” he commanded urgently. “Do not be afraid and do not move.”
If Anteros panicked and lost his footing, or if his lame leg caused him to slip, all three of them would die at the bottom of the gorge.
The destrier neighed and tossed his head, still agitated. But there was no more time for reassurance.
Royce checked the knots one last time, then moved toward the cliff. “Steady, Anteros. Stay there, lad.”
At the edge, he paused just long enough to make sure Anteros was holding his ground. Long enough to glance down and judge the distance to Ciara.
Then he pushed off and began his descent down the sheer wall of rock.