Page 1 of Daughter of Druids

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Chapter 1

Nayome sighed with relief as a thin breeze cut through the oppressive humidity, cooling the sweat beading on the back of her neck. She had been sure to pack for the weather, light sweaters, and rain gear. She was in Scotland, for goodness’ sake, not deep in the Amazon rainforest. Apparently, her research had failed to clue her in to the fact that temperate rainforests of Taynish had their own unpredictable weather patterns.

Glancing around, even though she was miles past running into another soul, Nayome shrugged the satchel off her shoulder and winced as it hit the forest floor with a heavy thud. Maybe she had over-packed, but this was an exploratory mission and she wanted to be prepared. Peeling off her sweater, she couldn’t help but glance around again, as if she felt eyes on her. She was down to her white tank top, which was basically see through and clinging to her with sweat. Classy. At least there wasn’t much to see. Her barely there chest would never win her any wet t-shirt contests.

Taking a desperate swig from her water bottle, she spied a group of large rocks that would make for a good place to sit and take a breather. The heat was really slowing down her progress, but she was deep enough in the forest that it was time to look for samples. Perching on the flattest, most comfortable looking rock in the cluster, Nayome unfolded the detailed terrain map the park ranger’s office had provided. Cross-referencing with the distance she had hiked so far…excellent. The river would be just ahead.

There had been an increasing number of anecdotal reports coming from this region, mostly from tourists venturing too far into the rainforest, that didn’t add up. Tidal bore sightings, for instance, where it was impossible for that to be the case. The river didn’t hit the ocean for miles, but a few people had captured some photos that looked un-doctored. Several tourists had even gotten lost, turning up days later with no memory of their time in the forest. Nayome shrugged. She was probably nuts for actually pursuing this, and even if there was something to it, what were the chances it would be relevant to her research?

Her colleagues at the Climate Research Institute of North America, CRINA for short, thought it was a completely harebrained idea, and had not been shy about making that clear before she left. Whatever. Her boss had signed off, so worst case, this was an all-expenses paid trip to Scotland.

Sometimes you had to go with your instincts, and something about this place had captured her attention like nothing had in years. So, she had called in every favor and used all the leverage she had at the office to make it happen. If it fell flat…well, she would have no social or professional capital leftover, and would look like a real idiot for a while. She was a climate scientist, and shaping up to be a pretty damn good one. Her professional reputation could withstand the storm of some temporary criticism. Specializing in the measurement of anthropogenic climate change, along with the real effects in different regions, some research investigating strange environmental reports was nottoofar out there in her field.

If she was being honest, it wasn’t just the oddball anecdotal reports that had drawn her in. The more Nayome had read up on the rainforests of Taynish and the surrounding landscape, she had felt a pull. The same kind of pull you get when you are about to crack a case, but you haven’t quite put all the pieces together yet. A nagging in your gut that you just couldn’t ignore.

What didn’t add up was that she was nowhere near solving a case—in fact, she hadn’t even figured out what the problem was yet. So that feeling, which she had learned to listen to over the years, didn’t really make sense. The logical part of her was struggling. So, she would find some samples, something for her scientist brain to focus on, and start ruling things out. But the nagging in her gut…it had completely settled the moment she had stepped foot in the rainforest. Despite the unseasonal heat, she felt deeply at peace. More at peace than she had felt in a long time. Since…well, since Nick left her in the dust for that ditsy blonde with the huge rack. What a cliche. Shaking off those thoughts, Nayome breathed in deep and tried to shut the past out—she would not let the memory of Nick mess with her forest zen.

Who needed men when she had samples, and a mysterious river tidal phenomenon to investigate.

Looking around, she couldn’t help but take a moment to marvel at how beautiful the trees were. The path she had been following was well trodden, but the trees surrounding it were old, towering over her like twisted, ancient figures out of another time. And she supposed they were. This landscape had been protected and left untouched for centuries.

Checking the time, she was glad for the early start this morning. There was still time to explore the area around the river and hike back before dark. There had been a mandatory sign-in with the park office, and they were expecting her to sign back out before sunset—otherwise they would send in a search party, which would be embarrassing. It was a day hike, but the area felt very remote. When you factored in the tourists getting lost lately, it made sense that they weren’t taking any chances.

Thinking back to the brief orientation she had with—what was his name? Blake? Blane? Strange for her not to remember, but ithadbeen at the crack of dawn. Her coffee hadn’t even kicked in yet. Man, that guy had been hot, though. Nayome didn’t normally notice things like that, especially when she was in work mode…but wow, there must be something in the water here because real humans weren’t built like linebackers, with deep soulful eyes and long beautiful lashes, dark chestnut hair that she had wanted to sweep off his perfectly strong brow…just thinking about him had a flush working its way up her neck.

Fanning herself with the map, Nayome tried to settle down and re-focus. The forest was humid enough as is. If her body temperature rose anymore, she was liable to pass out.

It had been a while since she had been with anyone. Nick left over two years ago and she had taken a deep dive into work ever since. She was pent up, that was all. A manthatgood looking would definitely not be on the market. Anyway, he had barely spared her a second glance, which had not been a surprise. Nayome wasn’t known to knock the socks off the opposite sex. Dressed in her sensible trail sneakers and comfortable khaki pants, with not a lick of makeup on—she wasn’t exactly oozing sex appeal.

Bill…or whatever his name was, had actually been rude, if she was being honest with herself. Repeatedly warning her not to stray from the path, as if she was a child, and not a very smart one at that. Maybe he was sick of plucking confused tourists out of his rainforest. She could understand that. But Nayome was well prepared, respected the great outdoors, and could read a map. She was no damsel in distress. What’s-his-name could suck a lemon for all she cared.

Time to get back to work. Stretching out her calves and taking another sip of water, Nayome started off again, leaves and twigs crackling pleasantly under her footfalls. Nayome smiled as she caught the welcome sound of gently moving water singing through the walls of old-growth trees. Rounding a bend, she was rewarded with a breathtaking view of the river. In the distance, she could see it was banked with deep cliffs, but where the trees cleared ahead, there was a long, sandy bank leading down to the water. Surrounded by dense old forest, with the sun’s rays bouncing off the surface of the water, it looked like something out of a fairy tale.

This would be the end of the line for her hike. There was no bridge to cross the river, and the path ended at the bank. Correction, there was no viable bridge to cross the river—the forest had reclaimed some remnants of a structure, moss covering the wooden posts that looked like they would have been used to hold some kind of suspension bridge. The river was flowing gently, but it was deep and wide. And the current could be deceiving. Attempting to cross would be completely idiotic. And that rude, unreasonably attractive gentleman at the park office had been very clear. ‘Once you get to the river, it’s time to turn around and head back. And don’t stray off the path.’

Grabbing some vials out of her bag, Nayome filled a few with the fresh water. She also filled her water bottle, which was getting low. Fast flowing and clear, this would be safe to drink. Taking a sip…oh yes, cold, better than any ‘spring water’ you could buy in a bottle.

About thirty minutes later, Nayome’s pack was filled with vials of soil, clippings from vegetation, and some unusual fungus growth she had discovered close to the riverbed. Unfortunately, the river was flowing naturally, with no wave pattern showing a change in direction of the tide. After taking a few snapshots and notes to support her samples, she was about ready to call it a day and head back.

As Nayome turned to head back up the riverbank, she hesitated, spotting a glint out of the corner of her eye. Was that a firefly? It couldn’t be…not in the middle of the day. The forest was so dense, not much sunlight filtered through. Maybe this environment had confused its natural nocturnal rhythm. Or maybe she had just seen the sun glinting off a run-of-the-mill beetle.

Working her way back up the sandy bank, towards the pathway, Nayome eyed the relatively small opening in the trees where the mystery bug had disappeared. She could fit, but it would be tight. The sexy park ranger’s voice rang in her head ‘don’t stray off the path’, which had her pausing for a moment, her curiosity battling with good sense. Grabbing some string from her pack, she tied it to the tree to mark it, planning to tie another every few feet. She wouldn’t go far enough to get lost, but better to be safe.

Nayome squeezed through the dense brush, tendrils of her hair getting caught in the branches. She was not very far from the path before she was ready to give up and turn back. There was no sign of the firefly, or whatever she had seen, and she had already lost sight of the path. The forest was so thick, she could barely see two feet in front of or behind her. It was so much darker under the tree cover. Because of the dim light, when Nayome caught sight of that flash of light, she saw it much clearer this time.

That was no beetle, and it was meandering through the trees just ahead, disappearing and reappearing as it weaved through the twisted branches. Abandoning her plan to retreat, she tied off another piece of string and slung her camera around her neck so it would be at the ready.

In the rush to get close enough to snap a photo of the daytime firefly, Nayome tripped over an exposed root and stumbled forward. Bracing herself, expecting to face plant into a tree, she instead stumbled forward into a small clearing.

Landing on her hands and knees, she was glad her face, and more importantly, her bag full of samples and camera, were unharmed. As she brushed bits of forest floor off her hands and knees, she winced at a few scrapes that would need to be cleaned. Glancing around, Nayome wondered where the clearing had come from. The forest had been so dense. She should have seen a large open space straight ahead.

Picking herself up to full height, Nayome got her first good look at the clearing, blinking in surprise.

Could this be real?

There had to behundredsof fireflies, their soft glow creating an ambient light that cast itself off the thick ring of trees surrounding her. She hadn’t hit her head on the way down, so she couldn’t have a concussion. Nayome rubbed the back of her head just to be sure, looking around dumbfounded. The fireflies must be real, out in full force in the middle of the afternoon.

Snapping a few pictures, she did a slow walk around the clearing. It was almost a perfect circle, which was also strange. In the middle of the clearing was one of the largest, oldest trees Nayome had ever seen. With a trunk so wide, you could have carved out the middle and had room to drive a truck through it. The fireflies were attracted to the tree, floating aimlessly through the thick twisted branches.

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