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Lily could see the pale ribbon of road below cutting through the trees and the bright blue expanse of sky wide-open in front of her.
“Nero. You can do it,” she whispered into his sleek, shiny neck and he snorted in response. Her thigh muscles burned as she tightened her grasp on his flanks. His muscles tensed in response, attuned to her body. She gritted her teeth and willed her shaking hands to steady. “We can do this, Nero. We have to.” Her heart hammered so hard in her chest she thought it might leap right over the culvert and down the hill ahead of them.
With barely a moment’s hesitation she dug her heels into the stallion’s flanks and urged him down the hill. The last trees cleared and the sudden heat of the sun stung her face, then she crouched low over Nero’s neck. The clatter of his hooves on the sandstone surface told her they had reached the road. The blood raced through her veins, pulsing in her ears, a violent and excruciating pounding raged through her body.
“Stop.” Tom’s command echoed around her as the blocks of the convict hewn, sandstone walls reared ahead of her. Surely it wasn’t such a huge jump for a horse like Nero?
She leaned forward in the saddle and her cheek brushed the dampness of his neck. Time slowed. With her eyes squeezed tightly shut she sucked in a great gulp of air and clenched her teeth tightly together. Nero lifted into the air. His muscles bunched beneath her and he flew over the chiseled blocks and down the slope. Her knees gripped the saddle and she dragged the reins almost vertical as they plunged down. Tufts of wiry grass and small rocks littered the route. She flinched as Nero’s hooves crashed across them. Gasping in a quick breath, she prayed for the terrain to level off.
Her lungs contracted like bellows and what little air remained, whistled out through her pursed lips. Nero tensed and she shuddered as he stumbled and then regained his balance. Her heart leapt to her throat and her wrists twisted as she wrenched on the reins to slow him. He quivered to a halt. Silver spots danced in front of her eyes and she gulped in a breath to feed her starving lungs. Nero’s muscled body trembled and quaked beneath her and white froth flecked his muzzle.
“We did it, darling Nero. We did it.” The salty tang of his body filled her nostrils as she leaned over his neck murmuring endearments. She swayed with exertion and forced her rubbery muscles to respond as she squinted into the sunlight. Figures on horseback towered above her, stalled on the road. She had an overwhelming urge to wave her hand and shriek in triumph.
But she resisted; this was her opportunity and she had no time to waste. She cut away to the right praying her memory of the maps was correct as she searched for the track leading her to Laguna.
“Lil-eee. Lil-eee.” Tom’s call bounced off the sandstone walls. Shading her eyes with her hand she stared back toward the culvert wall. It was empty.
“Lil-eee. Lil-eee.” The sorrowful echo reached her, resounding somewhere deep in her gut. Her sweat-soaked curls clung to her face as she shook her head, raging at her ridiculous foolishness. After such an exhilarating and successful leap for freedom why did she suddenly feel so melancholy? Her heels bruised Nero’s flanks and she urged him away in a fast canter.