They didn't have to urge the horses to move faster. Between the fear of the orcs and the longing for the water they could clearly see, the horses proved more than willing to run.
Dusty feared they wouldn't reach that safety, though. The orcs found more energy and their own horses were flagging. Hers stumbled, regained footing, and stumbled again. They were going down.
Fox leapt from his own horse and grabbed her out of the saddle while she held tight to the bag. Somehow he pulled her free of the floundering horse and all but tossed her up on his own. She barely caught hold and didn't fall off the other side. He slapped the horse hard on the rump, and it took off again.
She didn't want to go on alone!
The river couldn't be more than a quarter of a mile away, and the orcs were no more than half a mile back. Dusty had feared Fox was going to try to hold them off, but instead, he'd gotten her mount back to his feet and leapt into the saddle. The horse moved, though with a slight limp that she feared would get worse very fast.
Just get to the river!
The water had been higher recently, and the edge of the slope came to her suddenly -- and was slick. The horse gave a cry of surprise and fear as the animal started to slide, and in a moment they were in the current, the horses flailing. Blue gave a cry of fear in the bag, but she held him up and tried to direct the horse to the far bank though that seemed too far away. The icy water spraying over her was such a shock that she feared she would be ill and pass out. Everything seemed out of place, and the horse could not be doing much better.
The sounds of the orcs grew too loud, and she looked back in fear, expecting them to be coming for her --
No. They would not climb into the water. In fact, even as Dusty watched, one got caught on the slippery edge just as she and the horse had and slid down into the water with a scream of fear and dismay. Fox had been not too far ahead of the doomed orc, and the horse made a frantic dash farther into the water to escape the clutching hands.
The orc went underwater. It hadn't been that deep, she thought -- but there had probably been a lot of mud, and the orc was very heavy. She felt sorry that it would die there but glad that no others would leap into the water as well.
"To the far side!" Fox yelled.
And for a good reason. The orcs were drawing out their weapons, including slings and they had plenty of rocks on hand.
"To the far shore," she told her mount, gently brushing a hand over his right ear. "Go, my friend. We must get clear. We can rest when we are out of range. Are you all right, Blue?"
"Y-yes," he said. He sounded more frightened than injured, and this was not the time to bring him out. Dusty had a good hold of the bag, and the horse was trying to reach the other bank, though they seemed to be going more downstream than across. The orcs were trying to pace them, but they were staying back from the edge of the water now. More shrubs and even a few short trees were growing in the area, too and they helped to keep the orcs back.
Fox somehow caught up with her. He took hold of the bridle, though he moved with a wince of pain and his face had gone white. He must have been hit by one of the rocks. Many of them were falling around them in the water. One hit her horse, and she almost fell.
And then birds flew up from the bushes, screaming in protest -- and swarming the orcs so suddenly that some of them dropped their weapons to protect their faces and eyes.
"Good birds!" Dusty cried out. "Be careful, little friends!"
"Curve -- ahead," Fox gasped. "Head straight if you can."
The river curved to the right but if she went straight, she'd be on the far bank. Fox unexpectedly let go, but only to move to her right and help keep the horse heading for the dry land. The animal was well tired of the water by now, so it didn't take much of a push to keep going where they wanted.
And by slow steps, with the orcs yelling and screaming, they made their way up out of the water and onto the land beyond -- more desert, but a line of green close by the water. Grass of some sort. She hoped it was good for the horses. She hoped....
One step. Another.
They were out of the water. The horse stopped and stood there shivering while rocks flew into the river, splashing close by, though none seemed able to send the rocks all the way across. Just the same, Fox dismounted, took hold of both horses, and headed toward a small stand of trees no more than a few hundred yards away.
It could have been miles. By the time the leaf-covered limbs covered her in shade, she could barely still sit up.
"Down now," Fox said. He only lifted his left hand to help her. "Come down and rest. There is nowhere for them to cross for fifty miles on either side of us, you know. We're safe for now. We need to rest and then head toward the capital as fast as we dare."
"Yes." She handed the bag over, and he took it carefully in hand. She slid down mostly on her own, but her legs didn't want to hold her. She went to her knees and hoped he was right about the orcs. She couldn't go on.