Nayome was pretty sure this was hands down, the stupidest thing she had ever done. Her flimsy flashlight illuminated a thin beam of light, cutting through the darkness. Clutching her pack to her side, she had never been so thankful for her tendency to be over-prepared.
She thought for sure she would have been spotted as she had crept down the stairs from the second story deck, right in front of the glow from the front room’s window. Holding her breath, she had dropped to the ground and done an awkward crawl under the window, praying no one glimpsed her movement, or heard her awkward shuffling. She was not cut out to be a spy, that was for sure. But as she had crept by, she glimpsed Balfor, Gabe and Fitz chatting around the fireplace. Thankfully none of them had been facing her direction.
So, by some stroke of luck or genius, here she was. Half-way to God knows where. It felt good to be alone and free, making her own decisions again. Even if they were stupid, suicidal decisions, they were hers.
Nayome came to a stop as the end of the bridge came into view just ahead. It split into two directions after that. Taking a quick look at her compass, she picked the bridge headed in the north-most direction, rather than the one angled to the east. She had decided to test her luck going north, and was moving in that direction as best as this network of bridges would allow.
If she hadn’t been fleeing for her life, Nayome would have been impressed with the architecture. The bridges formed an endless web among the trees, the thin flashlight glinting silver off their delicate carved wooden railings. She had even passed another structure that looked like another house a ways back. She had moved quickly through that section, as she had spied flickers of what looked like candlelight from the windows above her. Ahead of her now, she could only see darkness.
Every step forward was a step further away from her jailers. As Nayome breathed in the chill night air, she felt like someone had lifted a weight off her. She was free. Now all she had to do was survive. And get as much distance between herself and these people as possible before they realized she had left. She had packed a full water bottle and the sandwiches which, if rationed, should last her a few days. She should be able to replenish the water, knowing there were fresh water sources in the area from her hike the day before. And she had her compass. If she kept moving north, she was bound to find the edge of these woods eventually.
She must have been walking the bridges for hours already, though Nayome had no actual way to gauge the time. She needed to find a way to the ground. If they realized she had escaped, she was a sitting duck up here in the canopy. Thinking better of her flashlight, she switched it off and took a moment for her eyes to adjust. The moon was higher in the sky than it had been when she set out, and almost full. There should be enough moonlight now for her to make her way along.
As Nayome approached what looked like the end of the bridge, she grimaced when a dead end appeared before her. No other bridges branched off this one, instead it ended at an enormous old growth tree.Just my luck, she thought darkly as a familiar sense of frustration settled heavily on her shoulders. Not wanting to turn back, she slid her back down the thick trunk of the tree that marked the dead end, sitting on the bridge to rest, putting her head in her hands.
Feeling around her bag, she grabbed one of the sandwiches she had stashed, taking a few quick bites. She washed it down with a sip of water. It had been hours since she ate, and her stomach was screaming for food, a few bites would have to do.
Taking out her light again, Nayome turned it on to get a better look at her position. Pointing it towards the ground, hoping against hope that she had missed something. Nayome felt her eyes well up in relief at the sight that greeted her. Circling its way down the length of the old growth tree was a delicate wrought iron staircase, connected to the bridge just to her left. The black iron rail hadn’t been visible in the moonlight. She had finally made it to the end of the network of bridges.
Working her way carefully down the steps that wound around the trunk of the tree, Nayome almost teared up when she felt soft, mossy earth beneath the soles of her trainers. The moonlight couldn’t pierce through the thick canopy, so Nayome was completely relying on her flashlight to illuminate her path forward from this point.
The forest was quiet, eerily so. Up in the canopy she had the sounds of wind rustling through the leaves, or the occasional call from nocturnal birds to keep her company. Below the canopy, the air felt thick. Noises sounded muffled.
Following her compass north, it was a relief to at least find this part of the forest wasn’t as dense as the one south of the river. The trees were just as tall, but spread out, as though welcoming passers through.
Nayome had to blink away a sudden wave of exhaustion.How long had she been traveling?It must be past midnight, at least. She had planned to keep moving until sunrise at a minimum, before finding a place to rest. She couldn’t see enough around her to judge her surroundings at night and didn’t want to stay in one place for too long. But she was suddenly so tired.Maybe another bite of food, Nayome thought reaching into her bag.
Shaking off the exhaustion, Nayome took another small bite. She hadn’t come this far to give up now.
She must have made it a mile or so before she stumbled over an exposed root, eyes growing heavy.Something isn’t right. Taking a long pull from her water bottle, thinking it was dehydration kicking in, Nayome took a second to catch her balance. She had seen no sign that she was anywhere near the end of this forest. It might be days…or longer, before she came across a change in landscape.
She needed to conserve her remaining water, but her throat was dry and scratchy, fatigue weighing down her eyelids. If she couldn’t put enough distance between herself and her captors tonight, all of this was for nothing. She needed the energy.
One more sip. As she tried to re-cap her bottle, another wave hit her, eyelids becoming heavy, knees weak. Distracted, she fumbled with and dropped the cap, and the bottle slipped from her fingers as she tried to catch it.
Nayome watched in horror as her precious supply of water spilled and absorbed into the earth. Falling to her knees, she grabbed the bottle, trying to salvage some remaining drops. Swallowing a scream, she felt her eyes well up with tears.
A rustling in the nearby brush interrupted the next wave of exhaustion that tried to take her. Nayome’s adrenaline kicked in, overriding the drowsy feeling that battled her for control as the hairs on the back of her neck raised in anticipation. Shining her light in the direction of the sound, her heart nearly stopped when it reflected off a pair of cruel yellow eyes. What’s worse, those eyes were set above a vicious looking muzzle wet with saliva dripping off sharp, canine teeth.
The wolf was stalking her slowly, and Nayome didn’t know what to do.
Fire, right? Wolves hate fire?
She had seen that in a movie or something. But she had nothing other than her flashlight. So, she waved that around ineffectively, hoping to scare the creature away. The flashing light had no noticeable effect, and if the rustling behind her was any sign, there was another wolf approaching.
Fitz’s warning rang in her ears about the perils of the forest. She had known it was going to be dangerous, but it had seemed a fair trade-off compared to the unknown fate awaiting her at the hands of Gabe and hisinfluence. Nayome shuddered. If they could tie her up and hold her hostage, who knows what else may have happened if she had stayed?
Now, as she stared into the malevolent gaze of the wolf approaching, she wondered if she had made the wrong choice. Maybe there had been a worse fate waiting for her in that treehouse. She would much rather go quick, and on her terms than have it drawn-out by some cult leader.
Nayome tried to steel her nerves, but found herself trembling as the creature drew closer, eyes locked on her own, filled with malicious promise.
They say your life flashes before your eyes in these moments. Nayome waited for that moment of clarity, but all she felt was regret. Regret that she had done nothing extraordinary with her time on earth. Regret for all the missed opportunities while she buried herself in work. Regret that she had let one failed relationship bury her in the sand for years, letting so many experiences fall by the wayside.
Nayome screamed towards the wolf closing in on her, turning mid-scream to continue her shout at the one creeping in from behind.I am not ready to die here!