Last to mount the windblown summit, the trailing Maiden turned and paused upon her Archmount. Standing as one, bathed in the blood-red glow of the hour, the proud and dignified pair beheld the panoramic sweep of the valley come sunset. And then they were gone.
When rising to ascend the remaining stairs, Heather stopped abruptly and, with a snap-turn of the head, she fixed her attention down the extensive stretch of hallway to one side.
Movement. Who? Or what?
Poised motionless as a graceful statue, she stared, her extraordinary green eyes parsing the confusion of shadows, waiting for more.
Legs and arms pulling her higher on a limb and above the water, she rode the buoyancy of the bough, the girl finally able to fully catch her breath. Now far downstream, following the curve of the swiftly moving creek, Heather saw the banks begin to narrow. As the current seethed below, the cluster of branches began to slowly rotate, sweeping her closer toward shore.
Approaching a spate of boulders near the Dairy Street Bridge, Heather straightened and timed her leap for the largest, landing, sliding, then scampering to gain traction and pull herself up the sloping granite face. Crouched upon the rock, stripping the sodden hair from her face, she took a moment to witness the lifesaving branches slam and wrap a stone upright of the bridge before violently being sucked under.
All systems alive, Heather swelled with sudden euphoria, with revitalized strength and a keenness of mind replacing the lethargy that had so gripped her spirit. Cloud cover breaking, she rose to stand tall in the night, her triumphant form framed against the large luminous circle of a resurgent moon.
Sinking, revolving freely in the deepness, her clothes waterlogged and weighing her down, Heather wriggled out of her raincoat and was able to shed her jacket. Swept along in the onrushing current, she stroked and kicked for the surface, and moments later, with a harsh gasp, broke the plane of water. Yet, almost instantly, she found herself again tugged under, and, determined, fought the unruly depths. Desperately in need of air, her lungs aching, Heather struggled until she finally reemerged with a splash. Face upturned, head barely out of the water, her ravenous lungs feasted on the oxygen until, for yet another time, she was hauled below.
Rising, she made her way across the timbers to the rectangular hole in the floor. At first sitting, feet dangling, she dropped herself through, reaching for the closest rung. From there, she began her descent, feeling in the dark one to the next, knowing the slabs of wood that she and Molly had carefully affixed to the tree just this summer were dangerously slick.
It was then that it happened, so swiftly and unexpectedly: with a crack, the rung below busted loose and her feet slipped free. And with a gasp, Heather slammed into the trunk, one hand sliding off the end of the rung above, the other gripping with just fingertips. The earth far below, she momentarily hung by an arm.