At one o'clock on Friday afternoon, Amanda was sitting in her infirmary room, dressed in the hunting outfit Rachel had brought for her, patiently awaiting her captor's arrival. Rachel had sent word that she would be arriving about an hour after noon.
Amanda checked herself in the mirror. For no reason that she could articulate, it seemed important to look nice for Rachel, whom she had rather missed for the past five days.
Amanda hadn't exactly felt abandoned. She knew that whatever Rachel had been doing, it was intended to be best for both of them. Amanda remembered that she had left Carol alone to turn on the spit while she went off to take revenge on the film crew. A person can't be two places at the same time - this was a law of physics that not even she could circumvent.
It had not been a lonely week. Amanda had had enough visitors and everybody had been courteous enough to ask, through the infirmary staff, if she wanted company. She had been surprised at some of the people who had shown up and she even suspected that Rache had asked a few of them to drop by, like Scott and Colonel Stoneridge. Nobody had talked much about the banquet scheduled for Saturday night and nobody seemed intent on hearing her express remorse over a life filled with violence and carnage and pain she had caused others in order to satisfy her appetite. Just nice, surprisingly friendly visits.
She had put the final touches on her short autobiography just the night before. She was glad that she would never have to worry if it made the best seller lists. She did wonder if people would be more surprised or disappointed to find out that Amanda Blake was a real person - not a nice person, mind you, but human, nevertheless. She had not told her agent about it. Put it in Rachel's hands - she would make a good literary executrix. She had made that and other arrangements through her solicitor
Amanda was determined not to do anything to make things hard for Rachel. Keep it casual and easy; two friends spending a significant afternoon together. Amanda hated it when quarry tried to make her feel sorry for them - especially when it worked. Of course, it never worked well enough to change their fate; it just made things unpleasant both ways.
What could Rachel have been up to all week? Touring slaughterhouses? Maybe going on a blood hunt with another hunter? Maybe visiting hospital emergency rooms? How could someone like Rachel prepare herself to kill someone?
Amanda honestly wished that she could tell Rachel, "Okay, I'll be Mandy the Panther Girl in a cage if that makes things easier for you," but she couldn't. She would be miserable and Rachel would probably be even more so. If Rache had to call in someone else to help her with the final act, that would be okay. Rache had promised not to do that, but that wasn't something Amanda would hold her to.
Be cheerful. Be casual. Make it easy on Rache. Together they would get through it.
Oddly, Amanda felt that she was in very, very good hands with Rachel.
Who came through the door punctually at one o'clock. She was wearing a white skirt and a loose-fitting white peasant-shirt-style pullover blouse.
"Hi," said Rachel. Not sadly, not with forced cheerfulness. She was surprisingly at ease.
"Hi. Did you have a nice week?"
"It was interesting. How about you?"
"Not bad. I had some visitors. Did some reading. Some writing. Oh, speaking of that, you got some mail. It was sent to you in care of the lodge and Greta brought it here. It's on the dresser."
"Really?" Rachel picked up the pile of envelopes. After opening and scanning the first letter, she said, "I don't believe it. Remember how Richard wanted me to hunt him? Well, here's another request for the same thing."
"Get used to it," Amanda told her. "I recognized some of the names in the return addresses. I wouldn't mind being around to help you handle some of the action."
"Well, did you see the return address on this one?" Rachel held up one of the envelopes for Amanda to look at. "This has to be a hoax! Maybe some secretary got a hold of some of the boss's stationery."
"Either that, or somebody in the opposition party," Amanda agreed. "Still, you never know. Why don't you open it?"
"Oh, okay." Rachel skimmed the letter quickly and handed it to Amanda. "Now, if this isn't genuine, the sender is guilty of more than simple forgery."
"How does all of this attention make you feel?" Amanda asked.
"Hm. Actually, somewhat excited, in a way. Maybe a little proud."
"Good," said Amanda.
"But, I'm not going to do anything about these letters. I'm really not a hunter. Not their kind, at least."
"You have lots of time to decide. Lots of time." Amanda managed a warm smile. "So, Rache, what did you have in mind for the afternoon."
Rachel's smile was also warm and not obviously forced. "I thought we would go have a picnic."
"Oh," said Amanda. "It would be nice to get outside. Are we going anyplace special?"
"Yes, someplace very special."
"Well." Amanda stood. "Do you like the outfit you picked out for me?"
"Yes. You look beautiful, as always."
"Just the way you want to remember me?"
"Good." Amanda began to move to the door but stopped. "Uh, Rache, we probably aren't coming back to this room, are we?"
"I wasn't planning on it," Rachel said quietly.
"Well, I think I want to take this with me." Amanda picked up her box of personal belongings, grabbed the "Merlin" video and put it inside. "Okay, let's go."
As they passed the reception desk, Greta smiled at them. "Have a nice picnic, you two. Oh, by the way, tomorrow night's banquet is a sell-out. You both should be very happy."
"My fans - loyal to the end," Amanda muttered.
As the two picnickers stepped out into the fresh air, they found a vehicle waiting for them, a Harley-Davidson FXDP motorcycle that had been converted into Lehman trike.
"Hm, the lodge seems to have stepped up a notch when it comes to utility vehicles," Amanda commented.
"Oh, that's for us," Rachel said. "Borrowed it from a friend."
"Uh, Rache, my ankle and foot are just fine. I don't mind walking."
"Oh, let's take the trike, anyway." Rachel seemed reluctant to give a reason. "And would you mind driving?"
"Sure." Amanda realized that, of course, Rachel would not want to carry her body back to the lodge. The fifty-four-inch slab of metal that covered the rear wheels would be more than adequate for carrying the body of a six-foot tall woman if the legs were folded at the knees and the head was, well, riding in the passenger seat. She mounted the trike. "Rache, I don't see any picnic basket."
"Oh, the food will be there when we get there," Rachel assured her, awkwardly climbing aboard and lightly putting her right hand on Amanda's side to steady herself.
Amanda started the engine and headed for the clearing.
It was a lovely, warm summer day. Lots of sunshine.
Rachel's light touch at her waist felt good to Amanda. It would have felt even better to feel a head on her shoulder, breasts pressed tightly to her back.
Amanda wondered what it would be like to just keep driving with Rachel behind her. Go to the edge of the hunting grounds, run through the fence, keep on going. Would Rachel tell her to stop? Could they just forget everything? Forget who they were and what they had been and done? Go someplace else, be someone else, do something else. Amanda really felt no desire to be different and she didn't think Rachel did, either. But if that desire were there, could they achieve a transformation together than neither could on her own? Could they, together, even discover a heretofore unknown desire within themselves? Wouldn't that be an adventure? Well, the chance to do that had come and gone a long, long time ago.
There were things that could have been said before. It wasn't too late to say them now. They would still have meaning. But, really, was there a point? Wouldn't it all just be bittersweet?
They arrived at the clearing. Amanda had been smelling roasting meat since they entered the woods. A picnic cloth with two place settings was spread upon the ground near the tree from which Amanda had hung Rachel years before. There were salads and a basket of rolls.
In the spot where Amanda had built a fire to roast Rachel's filet, a red-headed woman was tending to the main course.
"Ah, there you are." The cook arose and strode toward them, her hand extended to Amanda. "My name is Marsha Dillon. I've been wanting to meet you for a long time."
"Well, your timing is excellent," Amanda waited for Rachel to dismount the cycle first, but accepted the handshake. "I've wanted to meet you, too. I'm glad that Rachel invited you. Are you joining us for dinner?"
"Nope, I'm just here to cook and serve the food. And to help clean up."
"Ah, yes. The clean-up," Amanda said solemnly noticing Marsha make a silent offer to help Rachel dismount, an offer which was declined. Amanda resisted the temptation to roll her eyes at what appeared to be typical display of butch-fem behavior. At least, I know better than to try to patronize Rache, she thought.
The two celebrities moved toward the fire, but Rachel chose to remain by the vehicle.
Nodding in Rachel's direction, Marsha asked, "So, ‘Manda, how did you get along with my little baby?"
Amanda's face betrayed some astonishment before she realized that Marsha was talking about the Harley and not Rachel. She was also astonished by the pang of emotion that flitted through her in the split second that she thought Rachel might have already formed a relationship with another huntress. "Oh, it's a sweet ride." Standard yank biker lingo.
"That little baby gets me almost anyplace I want to go. The quarry I hunt usually negotiate a pretty wide range for themselves. I sometimes have to go a far piece to run ‘em down. I've been wanting to do some touring over here and when Rachel mentioned she'd like a little motorized transport today, I loaded this on the jet and brought it over."
"Hope you see some nice sights while you're here." Amanda looked back at Rachel, who was still lingering around the trike, and said in a confidential tone, "Look, I know that this may be hard for Rachel. I really don't mind her asking you to help, well, you know..."
"Honey," Marsha said, warmly, "honest, I'm just here to serve the food and clean up. I told Rachel that there was no disgrace in being a waitress and she decided to call me on that. Don't you worry. Rachel's gonna do just fine by you. She won't need any help. Now, why don't you just have seat? I just have to warm up the main course. I heard tell you don't like your meat too well done. I hope I did it right."
"I'm sure you did." Amanda tried to sound reassured. She sat down beside the picnic cloth.
Rachel stepped to the opposite side of the cloth. Before sitting down, she hiked up her skirt, and removed her knife from its sheath and laid it on the ground beside her.
"Rache, this is nice. Really, it is. This is the perfect setting."
"I'm glad you like it." Rachel began to eat her salad.
Amanda followed suit.
Marsha brought two plates to them, saying, "Look, I can tell when three's a crowd. My being here is killing the conversation. I'll just serve the veggies and meat go for a walk in the woods. I won't be far, though. Just holler if you need anything."
"Thanks" from both women as Marsha placed the plates before them.
Rachel's plate was filled with vegetables.
Amanda's plate also had vegetables, but in the center was a decently-sized, barely singed breast from a human female.
Amanda was touched. She took a bite, savored it, and then said, "Rachel, this is very thoughtful of you, especially considering how you feel about eating people. I view you serving this to me as a sort of, if not acceptance of me and what I do, at least an understanding. I'm feeling like I should apologize because I don't think I could have done something comparable."
"You don't owe me an apology, Amanda. There may be many, many others who might feel that you should apologize for who you are and what you've done. But, Amanda, I have nothing to forgive you for. You've done me no harm, and you have done me more good than you can imagine. Now, eat your food before it gets cold."
"Yes, my captor," Amanda proceeded to eat the meat in very small bites, enjoying the texture of each fibre.
Rachel watched Amanda eat, not knowing exactly what the mighty huntress was experiencing or exactly what it meant to her, but able to see her pleasure in her whole countenance. It was wonderful to see Amanda enjoying her food.
"This is very good," Amanda commented. "I know you can't just go the butcher shop and pick one of these up. Please thank whichever of the hunters who provided this - even if it was Richard - and let him, or her, have first choice at the banquet tomorrow night."
"Consider it done," Rachel said. "Amanda, may I have a bite of your meat?"
"Oh, Rache! Certainly! But, please, don't feel you have to go that far. Just providing this meal for me is enough of a demonstration of your feelings."
"Amanda, I really want to taste the meat. This is a special... occasion."
"Of course." Amanda cut a small bite and held her plate up for Rachel to stab it with her fork.
Rachel took the meat into her mouth, somewhat uncertainly but not obviously fighting to keep from retching. She chewed it slowly, tasting it, accepting it into herself. "That is quite tasty. I don't think I could ever make a steady diet of it, but I will agree that it is good meat."
Amanda picked up her box of personal belongings. "Rache, there's something I want to give you. Now, you are going to get a lot more than this from me and I hope you won't give it all away to charity. But, even if you can't control your generosity concerning the big things, I hope you will keep this. It's something I tried to give to someone else, years ago. She wouldn't accept it. I hope you will."
"With gratitude," Rachel said.
Amanda took a pen and the cleaner copy of The Wind in the Willows from the box. She opened the book and was about to cross out the writing on the front cover, but suddenly changed her mind.
"No, it wouldn't be right to give you this. You deserve something better than someone else's reject." Amanda took the other, much more worn copy of the book from her box and wrote on the inside cover, "To Rachel, from Amanda" and handed the gift to Rachel.
"Thank you. I will treasure it always."
The two women returned to eating.
When they had both finished, Amanda said, "Thank you, again, for a delicious meal and for what it symbolized." She looked at Rachel's hunting knife. "I don't suppose I need to ask what's next on the agenda."
"Oh, I don't know," Rachel said nonchalantly. "It's still pretty early in the day, and I feel overdressed." She began to remove her pullover blouse, but was having some difficulty as she was using only her right hand. "Amanda, could you help me with this?"
"Sure." Amanda got up and stood behind Rachel and pulled the blouse over her head.
And was stunned.
"Oh, my God, Rachel! What have you done to yourself?" Amanda knelt down beside her captor, tears welling up in her eyes. "How could you?"
A large surgical dressing covered the area where Rachel's left breast had been removed.
"Don't be upset, Amanda. And don't jump to any conclusions."
"But, Rachel, your beautiful breast! You've disfigured yourself for life."
"I hope not," Rachel said. "Let me explain. I have a friend - a woman I went to college with - who is now engaged in stem cell research. The project she is working on involves using a patient's own DNA to grow replacement organs and other tissues from healthy stem cells. She is particularly interested in helping women who have lost a breast to cancer. The problem is, she and her colleagues wanted to perform the first experiment on a healthy woman and there aren't many who will volunteer to have their breasts whacked for the sake of science. Now, I'm told that there is an eighty percent chance that I will have a new breast in about six months. I tend to be lucky and, this time, the odds are in my favor."
"Well, Rache, with all my heart, I hope your luck holds out."
"Me, too. But if it doesn't, I guess it will only be a serious problem if I have twins. Besides, legend has it that amazons cut off their left breasts so that their could carry their quivers of arrows better."
"So, I've heard. Personally, I'd prefer to use a slingshot," Amanda said.
"Now, if you approve, the money raised at tomorrow night's banquet will go to this research project. Do you approve?"
"Good. Now, I hope you realize that I didn't do this completely for humanitarian reasons. I really, really have wanted to become a part of you in some way since the first night we spent together. I am very happy that part of me is now becoming part of you."
"And I am honored and happy, too," Amanda said.
"And I want you to know that I've chosen to become a part of you, not because you caught me in a hunt, not because you beat me in a contest, but simply because of the way that I feel about you."
Amanda's lip quivered.
"Which is that I love you," Rachel said quietly.
Amanda struggled with herself for a moment, then picked up the book she had given Rachel and wrote something more on the inside cover, then handed it to Rachel again.
"To Rachel, from Amanda, with Love," the inscription now read.
"Thank you, Amanda."
"Well, sometimes words aren't easy to say."
Rachel took Amanda's hand and the two sat quietly for a moment.
"Now," Rachel said, in a lighter tone of voice, "I estimate that it will take about four hours for some of my proteins and minerals to find their way into your tissues. You said once that, under certain circumstances, you would like a good screw and you apologized to me for being all you had to offer me. I'm sore and not up to full capabilities. If you would rather have a more able lover, there is Marsha and I have made an arrangement with Cheryl, the waitress from the lounge, to be available. She was more than happy to accept..."
"How could I ever possibly want to make love to anyone else?" Amanda asked. "I want to spend the rest of my life, or most of it, at least, making love to you."
"Glad you feel that way."
Both women were naked within moments.
They shoved the dishes off of the picnic cloth and made love in the warm breeze with the sun beating down on them. They were together, in the sunshine, where they both knew that they belonged.
Their amorous activities lasted for far more than four hours.
Amanda treated Rachel with gentleness, stroking her dressing with such tenderness and feeling that Rachel almost felt that her breast wasn't missing at all.
They laughed and sighed and moaned and exclaimed and even sang to each other and to trees and the grass and the sun and all of nature.
There was no comparing this experience with any other they had shared, not even their first time together, because now, they were not just hunter and quarry, captor and captive - they were two women who had come to care deeply about each other.
The sun, however, finally began to get low in the sky.
"Rache," Amanda said, sitting up, "I'm in no hurry to bring this to an end, but I would like to, well, have things over before it gets dark. Can you understand that?"
"Of course," said Rachel. "I was thinking the same thing."
"Now, I'm not afraid, Rache, but the instinct for survival is very, very deep within me. I know that I can control myself and keep myself from hurting you, but I don't want to have to try. I don't want to have to concentrate on that. It would be easier for me if you bound my hands behind my back."
"As you wish." Rachel used her knife to cut a strip from the picnic cloth. She sat behind Amanda and bound her wrists. "Tight enough?"
"Just right. Uh, I'm sure you know what to do. I would like to be looking into your eyes, but if you want to stay back there, well, I'm all right with that."
"Don't worry," Rachel said. "Just relax." Rachel massaged Amanda's powerful shoulders, stroked her muscular arms.
Amanda was tempted to say words that she had not spoken for a long time, but felt that she should have said them before. To say them now would be, well, perhaps taken as a plea of some kind.
Feeling that Amanda was relaxed, Rachel picked up her knife with her right hand.
Grabbed all of Amanda's hair that the could manage with her left hand.
Pulled on the hair, tilting Amanda's head back until she was staring Amanda in the eyes.
Kissed Amanda on the lips.
Took her knife and...
In a single stroke...
Cut through Amanda's hair.
Next, she cut the strip of cloth that bound Amanda's wrists.
Stood up and began to wrap Amanda's beautiful red hair around her left wrist.
"I'll work this into a braid, later," Rachel said.
"Rache?" Amanda didn't know what to ask.
"I don't want to kill you, Amanda. There isn't any need to. You told me that if I had wounded you fatally when I tried to grab your knife as I hung upside down, you would not have killed me because there would be no point, since you wouldn't be able to eat me. I don't want to eat you and wearing a braid of your hair will do as much for me as wearing a dress made from your skin would."
Amanda stared at the swatch of hair. It took her a long moment to realize that Rachel was not going to kill her. "Rache, I'm grateful. I don't want to die anymore than you or anyone else I've ever hunted did, but I'm still puzzled as to what all of this has been about. Why did you come to me with your proposal for a hunt?"
"It took me until last Sunday night to figure out why I am so glad that you are a part of my life and why I want to keep you as a part of my life."
Rachel sat down beside Amanda.
"I felt that I owed you my life. Now, I know you didn't see it that way, and I was probably wrong to see it that way myself. But, in our second hunt, I saved my life myself. I now owe my life to me, as much as I ever did to you. And I've chosen not to kill you, as you chose not to kill me. That might make things all nice and tidy and equal according to some kind of score card, but that really isn't too important.
"You opened up erotic vistas for me that I could never have seen on my own. But someone else might have come along to educate me. I'm grateful to you for that, but that isn't enough to risk putting my life on the line to give you a good hunt, one you have said is the best you've ever had.
"Amanda, I was cajoled into playing the game of dares and ultimately into the hunt because I was afraid of growing old. Now, you intended to kill me, and that would have ended my worries about that.
"But also, as a result of that night, I've never once had a worry about getting old. And every time I think about the excitement, the sensuality or our experience together, I tingle from head to toe with arousal and vitality.
"Every time I look at or touch the bracelet that I will make of your hair, I'll feel young again.
"I'll remember being chased in my green youth through forest and field by the most beautiful woman I've ever known. I will be young forever, thanks to you, Amanda."
"I understand," Amanda said. "I'm glad that I've helped bring about that change in you. And I'll be glad to be around as a source of supply for your bracelet when the hairs break and need to be replaced."
"Yes," said Rachel. "I'd like that very much."
"Now, I never plan to use hair dye, so, if I live long enough, there will be grey strands in your bracelet."
"Then it will be even more beautiful. I like two-tone wearing apparel."
"But there is this sold-out banquet tomorrow that everyone is looking forward to. I'm sure you don't want to back out on that and I wouldn't feel right about it either."
"The tickets to that banquet have been sold with the understanding, not that you will be dinner, but that you will be serving dinner. Girl meat is easy enough to come by for those who really want it, but being served by the goddess of the hunt - that is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Now, if you want to, you can report to the cook tomorrow and have yourself served up, but I really hope you decide not to do that."
Amanda seemed unsure how to respond.
"It's your choice. I'm not going to insist on anything. You are free, no longer my captive. But you will always be my prize, and I want to share you, not just once, but for years to come. I am proud of you. Now, don't get the wrong idea. That thing you said about making love to me for the rest of your life - I'm not going to hold you to that. And to prove that..."
Rachel bent down and pulled a paper from the pocket of her skirt and handed it to Amanda.
"That's Christine's address and phone number." Rachel saw a question in Amanda's eyes. "Your childhood friend, the girl whose name is in the book you didn't give me. You, uh, mentioned her in your sleep that night in the infirmary. I wasn't meaning to listen, but, well, anyway, I had a chance to do some snooping via the telephone and Internet while I was in the hospital following my surgery. She lives in Devonshire. She's a single mother now. Her husband left her two years ago. She is a huge fan of yours and tells all of her friends she knew you when you were young. I think she would like to hear from you."
"I'll send her an autographed picture," Amanda said. Then she thought about it some more and added, "Or maybe invite her out to dinner sometime. And I'll do this waiting tables thing, too. If anybody tries to pinch my bum, though, they'll be sucking their dinner through a straw. Now, am I really supposed to serve a whole banquet to a lodge filled with people myself?"
"No. Just the main course. And only half of that. I've arranged some quality help for you. There will be two goddess of the hunt on duty. As I said, Marsha doesn't see any disgrace in being a waitress."
"Well, after tomorrow night - will we see each other? I mean, other than when you come to give me a haircut?"
"Maybe. Maybe on a very regular basis." Rachel sat down beside Amanda. "You see, I called your producer to tell him that you would probably be available for the tv series you told me about. He said he hadn't been too keen on the idea when you suggested an unknown, untried, total novice actress for your co-star, but, after my, uh, victory last week, he's much more interested in me."
"Yes, really. Another friend from college who felt he owed me a favor is now a junior partner in an law firm and he negotiated a rather nice contract for me. Now, of course, you will still be the star but, well, my name will come on the screen right after yours and before the title of the show. And I get my own trailer. And a hairdresser. And an assistant - I have no idea what she'll do. And script approval - but just on my own dialog, of course."
"Of course," said Amanda.
"Assuming that you still want me on board, that is," Rachel said humbly.
"We'll do lunch next week," Amanda said, with a west coast American accent.
"The producer didn't tell me about the storyline. What is it?" Rachel asked.
"Well, it opens with a two-episode story," Amanda began, "At the start of the first episode, you and I are enemies, out to kill each other, but by the end of that show, we are on cordial terms. In the second episode, we really become friends and the potential is there for us to become a lot more..."
Rachel stood up. "It sounds like real life," she said, "except I don't know how much potential there is for something more to happen between us."
"I don't know, either," said Amanda, also getting to her feet. "Rache, I don't want to change, at least not as much as might be necessary to have a relationship with you. I can't honestly say that I'm sorry that I'm not more willing to change. You've changed, but I can't expect you to do all of the changing in a relationship."
"I know." A hint of sadness in Rachel's voice.
"Rache, there is something I've wanted to tell you, but if I had told you before now - before finding out that you're not going to kill me - it, well, wouldn't have been appropriate." Amanda shrugged. "I thought about writing it in a letter that you could read after the banquet, but that wouldn't have been right, either. At that point, it might have only caused you pain."
"What is it?" Rachel couldn't conceive of anything about which Amanda would hesitate to speak her mind.
"It's just that, well... if I had caught you in the hunt, I wasn't sure I'd really have killed and eaten you."
Rachel was startled. "You weren't going to eat me? I mean, kill me. Or not..." For a moment she was almost lost for words. She gestured vaguely at her own body, "...you know?"
Amanda smiled. "Gobble up your tasty bits? Well, no. Possibly not. No offense, of course. I'd love to eat you, you know that. It's just..." For a moment she seemed almost embarrassed.
Rachel was still baffled. "Then why?"
Why go through this charade, why risk your life, why didn't you TELL me...
"I..." Amanda shook her head. "I might as well ask you why you chose to gamble your life again," she said at last. "The risk you took..."
Was absurd, Rachel knew. Her reasons still seemed irrational, even to her. "I asked first," she said.
"So many questions," Amanda teased. "Which would you like first?"
What Rachel really wanted to know was why Amanda hadn't wanted to kill her. "Surprise me," she said.
Amanda nodded. "You do see why I couldn't mention this before?"
Rachel thought she did see, but she wasn't going to presume. "Do tell," she said.
Amanda sighed with mock impatience. She ruffled Rachel's hair, a gesture Rachel pretended to dislike. "Don't play the innocent with me," she said. "You've guessed most of it."
"You might have changed your mind," Rachel said. It just came out. "And if..."
"If I told you before the hunt that I wasn't going to kill you...?"
"You couldn't." Rachel suppressed an involuntary shudder. Suddenly she wondered what would have happened if Amanda had really been out for blood. But it was true, Amanda couldn't - or wouldn't - break her word. "Is that why...?"
"One of the reasons."
"And the others?"
"You know that too. I had to play the game out."
"So that I could learn something that might be important."
"Which was or would be?" Rachel persisted.
"Well, for one thing, why you were willing to let me hunt you again."
"And for another thing?" Arms folded over chest.
"All right,"Amanda was becoming aware that she could only evade for so long, "Rache, you are right that settling for something is different from being satisfied. But there are two kinds of settling. You can settle by necessity or by choice.
"When I told you in the infirmary that I would settle for hunts in which my prize would be to get you in the sack, that was the best I thought I could ever hope for since I was sure you would never let me hunt you for blood again. And I don't give myself any points for being willing to take the best."
"Neither do I," Rachel agreed. "But this matter of settling by choice - now, why would somebody do that?" Head cocked to one side, slight smile.
"Because choosing to fulfill a secondary desire might entail fulfilling other desires and together all those lesser desires might outweigh the primary desire."
"You mean like if you were at a restaurant where you could only order whole meals and the side dishes that came with your favorite entree weren't as good as those that came with your second favorite."
"Nice metaphor. Very appropriate."
A thought that had been lingering in the back of Rachel's consciousness jumped to the head of the queue and her tone changed to that of someone who had just made a possible discovery. "Amanda, could all of this have caused you to hold back in the hunt, to not come after me with all you had?"
"I don't know. I certainly didn't want to hurt you, even if I might have finally decided to kill you. I didn't like the idea of shooting you with an arrow. But, Rache, don't let that diminish your sense of accomplishment. You beat me - not at my own game exactly, but you did beat me."
"Well, these side dishes that come with getting me in the sack that don't come with eating me - what are they?" Rachel was almost aggressive. "Friendship? A co-star for your tv show? A worthy opponent in a hunt? Those can't be too hard for you to find."
"You did say that you love me," Amanda smiled. "That's a dish I haven't tasted very often."
"And I DO love you. But I've only become aware of that in the past - well, the recent past - and I only mentioned it this afternoon. And I think it came as unexpected news, so that can't have been a motivation."
"Unexpected but not unhoped for."
"You're saying you would decide not to eat me based on hope? Come on. Pull the other one, Amanda. I am not the only person in the world who could love you."
"Maybe, but, Rache, there is one side dish that comes with having you alive that is unique."
"And that is?"
"When I kill a woman in order to eat her, she and I have a very special relationship. It will be the last relationship of her life. I try to make it pleasant. If I can't, that doesn't stop me from killing her. I'd rather she didn't die hating me, but, well, I don't believe in ghosts. I guess, though, I am pleased when a woman likes me in spite of the fact that I'm going to kill her. You liked me when I was about to kill you."
"That's putting it very mildly," Rachel laughed.
"Rache, you know me in a way that no other living woman does or, barring another well-timed freak occurrence, ever will. When I look into your eyes, I can see something that I'll never expect to see anywhere else. You've seen me at one of my best moments - I've had similar moments with other women, but I can't share the memory with them. I like the idea that there is one woman alive who knows me for what I am at that moment. And I would like to stay in touch with her. Close touch. Even if she didn't love me."
"Of course, if you killed me, you would lose that."
"And you wanted to catch me in a blood hunt to find out if, given the opportunity, you would choose to settle for getting me in the sack and keeping that uniqueness in your life?"
"Something like that."
"Well, have you made up your mind? Or do we have to go through all this again?" It wasn't a serious question.
Amanda shrugged. "You have thrown the fact that you love me into the mix. That does tip the scale a bit, even if it doesn't mean we're going to be life partners or whatever."
"Suppose I had kept my yap shut about loving you? Do you think you would choose to settle?" This was a serious question.
"Let's just say that I'm glad it's a matter I'll be able to continue to explore."
Rachel's expression told Amanda that this wasn't quite enough.
"Rache, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I'm glad we were interrupted in that first hunt. Rachel, I'm glad you are alive."
Tears came to Rachel's eyes.
"That's all I really ever hoped to hear from you."
Rachel opened her arms and took a step toward Amanda.
From the woods, Marsha's voice shouting, "Hey!"
Rachel stumbled and fell into Amanda.
Amanda caught Rachel in her arms and was about to tease her for having been startled by a shout from the woods.
But then, Amanda felt that Rachel's back was wet.
Looking into Rachel's eyes, Amanda saw pain and surprise, even shock.
There had been a loud noise almost simultaneously with Rachel stumbling. A shot.
Get Rachel out of danger!
Amanda fell to the ground holding Rachel in her arms.
Must seek! Kill!
Can't leave Rachel! She might... I don't want her to be alone.
Suddenly, a strangled cry was heard from a male voice.
Moments later, Marsha appeared with a bloody knife in her hand.
"Rachel's hurt," Amanda said. Her voice was clipped and almost ragged, her face a mask of pain she didn't want to show. Anger and grief warred in her. Yellow tigers... green fury... crouched in jungles... in her dark eyes. Dilated, reflections in the depths of them. Anger? No, fury.
Nothing with any survival instinct would have dared to touch her then, not even to comfort.
Marsha knew better than to try, so she didn't. "Yes," she said "I know." She had pulled a cell phone from her pocket and was already punching in a number. "I saw the varmint just as he was taking aim. Sorry I didn't get him before he got off a shot. I think his name was Philip. I met him once. I knew he didn't like you, but..." Marsha stopped as she heard a voice on the other end of the cell phone.
Rachel had been hit just under her left shoulder blade and was having difficulty breathing.
"He must have... been trying to kill you," she said weakly, doing little more than vocalizing on her exhalations.
"Either that or he wanted to show me what it's like to lose someone I love," Amanda was fighting back tears.
"This is like before," Rachel said, "except I'm hurt a lot worse this time, aren't I?"
"Well, worse, yes, but..." Amanda clenched her jaw, "but not a lot worse. He missed your heart and there isn't any exit wound. You should be okay."
"Just the same," Rachel said, with a quiver in her vocalization, "let's don't have you run through the woods carrying me. Let's just have some quiet time here. Just you and me. Okay?"
Amanda wanted to tell her everything would be fine, but couldn't. She wanted to do whatever Rachel wished, but wanted to save her, too. Rachel had a look of serenity and acceptance about her that Amanda had seen often enough to know what it meant. She didn't want Rachel to give up, but she didn't want to see her struggle, either.
Marsha put her cell phone back in her pocket and approached the lovers with a come-on-let's-go air about her.
"Rachel doesn't want me to run through the woods carrying her. She just wants some quiet time." Amanda's eyes said, please help me keep her from giving up.
"Bull hockey," snorted Marsha. "You two can have your quiet time riding on the back of my Harley. It's never let me down yet." She bent down and said, gently. "Rachel, honey, you aren't going to get ornery and give us a hard time if we go ahead and save your life, are you?"
The wounded woman smiled and mouthed the words, "No. Go ahead."
"Well, come on, then. You two can ride on my back fender. Let's see what kind of a shock absorber you can make, ‘Manda. This ain't the smoothest ride."
Amanda carried Rachel to the trike, and sat on the fender while Marsha lashed her to the back seat using the picnic cloth. Marsha started the engine and began zipping around trees, heading toward the lodge.
Cradling her precious burden in her arms, Amanda realized that if Rachel had been hit in the lung, as seemed likely, letting her talk could do her some harm, but letting her lapse in unconsciousness before she was in medical hands would be much worse. Amanda knew that if Rachel stopped breathing, she could force air into her lungs for a while, but that could only last so long. If she could just be kept alive long enough, everything would be all right, just like before. They had Rachel's DNA in storage. Maybe her medical researcher friend could grow her a new lung as well as a breast. If Rachel could be kept alive.
Amanda was the ruler of this domain, the valkyrie who chose the dead. She had not chosen Rachel. Losing one hunt had not stripped her of her power. Rachel would not die.
"Maybe," said Rachel softly, "you won't have to worry about having to change for my sake."
Amanda wanted to declare that, at this moment, she would make any change at all, if only she could also change what had happened just a few minutes ago. But she wasn't sure that she would still mean it, once Rachel was recovered, if she did recover. Amanda realized, though, that she was too dangerous to love the way she was. Maybe it was too late to change. Maybe too many people hated her already and would hurt someone close to her, even if she herself was invulnerable.
"We'll talk about it next week," Amanda told her, hoping that she was predicting the future. "Don't be afraid, Rachel. Just don't be afraid."
"Oh, I'm not afraid," Rachel said. "How can I be afraid when I'm with you? How can I be afraid of anything now that I've known you?"
Amanda could only look at Rachel's calm, smiling face. She didn't have an answer for a rhetorical question.
"See," Rachel explained, "having known you and having you in my life has made me not only unafraid of growing old, but it's also made me not afraid of the alternative. Thanks to you, I'm not afraid of death, Amanda."
"There isn't any need to be." Amanda tried to sound confident.
"If," Rachel said, "my luck isn't so good this time. If I don't make it, I want you to promise me something. Don't let me go to waste. Eat me, Amanda. Eat all of me."
"Count on it." This, Amanda could state with confidence. "Every fibre. If you die, you'll be a part of me forever. If you live, you will be, too."
The motorcycle cleared the top of the hill that separated the lodge from the hunting grounds.
Marsha saw that the door to the infirmary was open and Dr. Zimmerman and his nurse were rushing to meet them carrying an IV bag and pushing a gurney respectively. Outdistancing them by about twenty yards was Cheryl, pushing an oxygen tank and mask. Cheryl had whipped off the tight leather skirt that was part of her lounge uniform in order to run faster.
Rachel was hanging on.
There should be time.
"One thing, for sure" Rachel said, looking up at Amanda. "We've had a good time together, haven't we?"
"Rachel, I've had a wonderful time, an absolutely wonderful time with you."
"Me, too, Amanda. I've had a wonderful time, too."