Slave of a Hunter

Rapids and Waterfalls

My face felt hot, then cool, then wet. Fluttering my eyes open I saw umber bark surrounding my head. Yawning and rubbing my damp face I turned my head and saw it was morning. The two fiery suns were trying to shine through the thick overcast of leaves, causing the rays of light to turn into a mix of olive and ochre. A cover of mist hung over the foliage in the early day and the air felt heavy and hot. I moved my sticky tongue in my dry mouth and stretched out my aching arms.

"Awake already Isha?"

I yawned again and looked at my friend, "Morning Becky, morning Xeenan. Anything happen while I was asleep?"

Xeenan shook his head, his locks swirling in the water, "I have not seen anyone follow us for several hours, but I'm not letting my guard down. The rapids should be coming up soon."

The male peered among the trees and glanced several times behind, in front and across the stream. I could tell he was exhausted from staying awake all night and keeping his former warrior senses on high. It was obvious he would not rest until we were all safe on Nadar–ian'ah's ship. I looked to the children. They were still curled up between the branches, snoozing peacefully. I glanced at the water and it reminded me of how thirsty I was. I took off the converter and hesitated for a moment. I was nervous about drinking the water, I did not know if there were parasites or diseases in it that could make me ill; it was in a tropical environment after all. Then again, the water I drank in the Citadel was not the cleanest in the world. I stared at the blue liquid again and brought a handful of the cool, soothing water to my parched lips, finally surrendering to my thirst. Once I was quenched, I slipped back into the water and my shrunken stomach growled for food.

"Is there some place we can stop and eat?" I asked.

Xeenan turned to me, "There are some naxa trees near the waterfall. We'll grab some fruit and then head to through the forest."

I nodded eagerly, my mouth beginning to water. During the preparation for the Feast of the Gods I had seen and smelt the sweet tang of the fruit, and for the longest time I wanted to taste one.

Within ten minutes the current became stronger and faster. The trees began to span apart and the river was starting to get narrower. We were coming up to a bend and I could hear the thunderous roar of the rapids. Xeenan informed and pointed to the rooted shore.

"We should land over there, help me swim."

Becky kicked awkwardly, while I swam around the other end and towards the middle where the children were still asleep. I gently shook them awake.

"Rise and shine you two, were going to land soon."

Al and Sor'an yawned and stretched, straddling the log. The two gazed at their surroundings for the first time and their eyes and tiny maws went wide with awe.

"The trees are so big!" cried Al, "I feel so small!"

"Uh–huh," Sor'an nodded, "everything's so bright! The suns are so warm!"

The children yammered on about the suns, the trees, the rocks and water; I could not help but smile at them. We were now close to the edge and I felt the log bump on the rocks. Xeenan stepped onto the shore first and slipped. He quickly recovered his balance before he fell.

"Careful, the rocks are loose and slippery," he stretched out his hands, "Come onto dry land, little ones."

I dug my foot into the mud and steadied the log with one hand while using the other to guide the children off. I felt the log push against me and I had to struggle to push back. I looked behind me and saw the end of the log, where Becky was holding on, wanted to catch the swift flow towards the rapids. I could tell it was a fight for her to keep the log straight against the current. The children clambered onto the shore on wobbly legs and was faced with the immense jungle. They suddenly did not look as confident as before; in fact, they looked frightened. They huddled close to each other and timidly backed away from the orange trees, bumping onto Xeenan when their backs touched his legs. Their eyes grew wider as their heads darted back and forth, watching the underbrush as if something was going to pounce on them. My heart sank. I could not blame them for being afraid. All their lives they had been confined in the small areas of the Citadel and had never been introduced to such a massive space.

I sighed and scrambled onto the rocks, dripping wet. Pushing back my soaked hair, I turned to Becky and held out my hand, while she clumsily splashed to the shore. She took my hand and stepped onto the rocks. I was about to pull her when she suddenly slipped and fell back into the river with a bark; pulling me in with her.

The strong current caught us under the water and we were violently hauled to the rapids. Becky's grip began crushing my hand and I felt her claw her way towards me. She was panicking! I gripped her arm and kicked for the surface. Air bubbles escaped my nose and my lungs burned as I tried to carry the extra weight. I finally broke the surface and opened my mouth to take a breath, but choked. My mask was full of water! I ripped the mask off, coughing and sputtering. I heard a panicked roar beside me and saw Becky's head barely above the surface, her free arm waving wildly and the other squeezing my hand. I kicked again to try and keep both of us up, when I looked ahead. Much to my horror, all I saw was white foam, jumping over jagged rocks as a heavy veil of mist hovered over the rapids. Becky's head went under again and I used all my strength to hook my left arm around her chest and pull her up. She gagged and fought along with me to stay above the surface.

"Hang on Becky!" I yelled.

The river pushed us over a rock and swooped us back under again. My stomach flipped as I turned head over heels. Rocks scrapped across my bare legs and clipped my shoulders. Miraculously, I managed to keep my grasp around my friend. The current pushed us deeper and water flew up my nose and mouth. Fire burned in my lungs and brain, I had no idea which way was up. I thought I was about to drown, when a sudden rush of the current shoved Becky and I back to the surface.

I took in a deep breath of the thick air and coughed several times. My friend's vice grip tightened and I cried out in pain. I saw her head was slowly submerging, she was losing strength to swim. I heard a call from the shore and through my watery vision I caught a glimpse of Xeenan and the children running beside the rapids. I was about to call back to them when a boulder appeared in front of me and slammed into my left side. White, hot pain travelled through my whole chest, knocking the air out of me. Another sharp rock hit me square in the shin and I could not hold back a cry as more of the cursed water gushed into my mouth and down my throat. Becky yanked my arm and I realised she went under again. Fighting off the anguish in my chest and leg I dove under, hooked my free arm under the crook of her shoulder and kicked as hard as I could. Somehow we both managed to swim to the air and Becky threw up half the river. I fought to keep us above the surface when my blood went cold. The churning water levelled off several feet in front of us and all I saw was a greenish–blue sky.

We were heading straight for the waterfall! I kicked and flailed my free arm, trying to find something to grab, but my struggles were in vain as the terrible current thrust us closer to the falls. We're going to die! my mind screamed. A roar over the rumble of the falls snapped me back to reality and I saw Xeenan ahead of us, hanging upside down by his knees on a low branch, with his arms stretched out. The children were jumping up and down on the edge, crying out and waving their arms. I prepared myself to reach for the male when the current suddenly shoved Becky forward, causing me to turn in an awkward angle. There was no way I could reach him now; but Becky could!

"Za'Becc! Grab Xeenan!" I shouted.

Whether she understood me or not, she turned her almost sunken head to the male and reached up as far as she could. Xeenan caught her wet arm. I screamed in terror as I travelled forward, then suddenly stopped with a jerk. The branch strained under the extra weight, but kept its hold. Becky's death grip remained on my arm as water splashed and yanked at my resisting body, causing water to gush over my head. I gagged as water stung my nose and throat, scrunching my face in anguish when the rapids battered my tender ribs. I felt myself get dragged back from the precipice and I looked up to see Xeenan drawing in Becky's arm, his eyes and face squinting with exertion. The thick branch bend threateningly, but still kept its support. My friend was soon guided to the branch and she hooked her arm around it, pulling herself up and me along with her. When Xeenan grabbed both my arms, Becky let go and straddled over the thick limb. She lowered her upper body onto the branch and pulled herself across to the shore. The strong male hauled me in further and I met his smiling face, finally feeling reassured and safe. I thought I heard a cracking noise and looked to see the branch breaking a few inches near Xeenan's knees.

"Xeenan! The branch is breaking!" I wailed over the roar of the water.

He looked at the branch and his eyes widened. Al and Sor'an screamed, pointing as Becky peered over her shoulder with a look of terror on her face. The limb snapped again and I felt myself fall back into the rapid's cruel, watery hands. There was not enough time for Becky to climb back to us and if Xeenan moved would both fall in! The branch creaked and crackled, ready to give way at any second. I hung in the male's grip, wheezing as the water stretched my injured body. I stared at him desperately. Xeenan looked down at me, his thick locks fell around his head like mane. His eyes were forlorn, but he smiled and gave me a reassuring wink. My stomach tightened with fear, what was he going to do?! The male spread his mandibles and with a mighty roar, he heaved me out of the water and tossed me onto the branch. At the same time, the limb snapped and Xeenan plunged head first into the foaming water. I landed on the branch with an uncomfortable jolt and hung by my waist. I twisted around, my face deformed with horror and my gut wrenched in a sickening knot. Xeenan's head broke the surface and everything seemed to happen in slow motion as I watched helplessly as he disappeared.

"Xeenan! NOOOOOOO!" I wailed, feeling hot tears spring from my eyes.

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