Olivia guided her kayak through the water with seemingly little effort, just an occasional paddle left, right, then left again as she crossed the lake in a straight line. The vessel sat low in the water as it glided along, almost making her feel as if she was in the lake. Her head was just a couple feet from the surface, so close she could smell the fresh, cool water. It was a great feeling, she thought, having the lower part of her body actually below the surface, yet warm and dry, stretched out inside the hull. It was a sturdy craft made of durable, lightweight wood, one she had used many times for safe crossing of the Heron Lake wilderness, always being careful to stow it away in one of her many hiding places.
Olivia glanced wistfully to her right as she made the crossing, seeing in the distance to the east where the shoreline was broken by a nearly hidden cove. She knew it led to the meandering wetlands she loved to explore in her kayak, when time allowed. There was no time for exploring now, she reminded herself. The sun had set and the gloom of a summer evening was already rolling, like a fog, across the lake. There would be a full moon late tonight, she thought. Somehow that seemed fitting after the strange events of the day.
Night is not my enemy, she told herself as she continued to paddle toward the north shore. By her calculations the mercenaries who followed her were still several miles behind and would likely make camp once they reached the south shore. She was sure they would not attempt a crossing in the dark, and that would give her time to stow the boat and get to her home in the forest. Olivia was tired after her flight and longed to rest, but she knew she had several hours of travel still ahead.
A thick bed of tall cattails, rushes and reeds loomed ahead, a green expanse that stretched away for many hundred feet to either side as Olivia neared the far shore, She brought the kayak to a stop and peered through the gloom, searching for something in the dusk. Then she paddled to the right, staying very close to the weeds, for about 100 feet. Where is it? she wondered, straining to see as the darkness increased rapidly and the minutes passed.
There it is, she thought with relief. An opening in the long procession of water plants, so narrow it was not visible from a distance, suddenly appeared. The traveler turned the kayak carefully to the left, guiding it through the opening. The reeds and cattails scraped softly against the hull as she entered the hidden aquatic pathway. It was one she herself had crafted, just wide enough to allow passage, winding left and right in a zigzag pattern through the expanse of the tall, sword-like plants. They seemed to spring back into place behind her, helping to conceal the passageway as she made her way slowly toward shore. The water was shallow, just deep enough to support the kayak.
Suddenly a loud noise a few feet away in the water caused her heart to leap. In the gloom she saw two figures rise out of the reeds and take flight, letting out a raucous cry. Herons! Olivia nearly laughed aloud. Her presence had rousted a pair of nesting birds that had just settled in for the night. Despite her knowledge of the lake’s wildlife, the sudden explosion still caught her by surprise.
I can’t be so jumpy, she thought. I need to have nerves of steel or I will make a mistake. She knew one misstep could be her last. With that grim thought she settled herself and resumed paddling through the small jungle of water plants.
Before long she slowed the kayak, peering into the gloom to her left. The girl quickly found what she was looking for, an almost imperceptible break in the reeds. With navigational skill borne of years of practice, she turned and pushed through the tiny opening. Once her vessel went through, the plants seemed to spring back into place behind her, helping to conceal her passage. Anyone following her trail this far would likely miss this sudden turn, or at least so she hoped.
Now it was almost completely dark as she reached her destination. The tall reeds and cattails began to thin out, revealing a boggy area covered in long water grass. The kayak came to a halt, hitting bottom as the shore drew near. Olivia quickly grabbed her pack and exited the craft, stepped into the shallows and suppressed an exclamation as the cold water began to seep into her boots.
Despite the darkness she found her hiding place by the shore with practiced ease, much like a blind person who knows every inch of their environment and uses other senses as guidance. She pulled aside a thick mound of grass to reveal an opening, one she had carefully hollowed out earlier in the spring. It was just long enough to fit her boat, and when she replaced the grass it was nearly impossible to see the camouflaged vessel, unless of course someone knew where to look.
The shore here was also lined with thick brush and shrubs, another reason Olivia had chosen that area. Now she waded in the shallows, hugging the shore as she headed west. It was slow going, but necessary to hide her trail. After about a half-mile trek through the water, the boggy wetlands was replaced by sandy, rocky ground. There were fewer shrubs and underbrush here as she made her way onto shore.
The moss-covered ground was firm and did not give way as she stepped lightly, hoping to avoid leaving obvious tracks. She stopped and took one last look behind her in the darkness, across the lake. Away to the southeast, a slight glare of light was starting to appear behind the treeline. The moon was coming up. Good timing, she thought, her spirits lifting a bit for the first time today. Moonlight would aid her passage through the forest.
With that she turned and quickly disappeared into the forest.
* * *
The full moon was already riding high in the sky as the four men came to a halt. Their leader held up his hand, a signal he wanted silence, as he stood on the southern shore of Lake Heron and looked around. Moonlight reflected across the rippled surface of the water as the bearded, rough-looking mercenary surveyed this latest obstacle. He sniffed the air as if looking for clues in the night breeze.
The lake stretched to the east and the west as far as he could see in the half-darkness, and he sensed it would be a long way around in either direction. But that decision would have to wait until morning, he thought, feeling very irritated that their prey had managed to slip away again. A lot of money was riding on the success of this venture. They would find her, and she would not escape again, he vowed.
“Now what, Vladimir?” asked one of the men behind him.
“We make camp for the night,” he said gruffly, knowing that the distance between them and their quarry would increase while they rested. “The morning will bring guidance. No fire tonight.”
* * *
A strong night breeze swept down the mountain and across the treetops as Olivia walked through the forest. Silver-gray moonlight filtered down through the swaying branches of the oaks, walnuts, beeches and pines, dancing on the ground in front of the young maiden. The tapestry of light that played out around her left her feeling a bit unsettled, though she wasn’t sure why.
She climbed up out of the valley and away from Heron Lake, taking a winding route. She followed a small stream bed for a while, walking through the water or bounding from rock to rock as she tried to mask her passage. Eventually her pursuers would pick up her trail, since they likely had at least one expert tracker among them. But she used the tricks learned from many years living in the mountains, hoping to slow them down.
Occasionally she stopped to climb a tree, then used her rope skills to swing over to a neighboring tree, before climbing down and continuing on her way. At several points along the stream she struck out to either side, making false trails to confuse the trackers. And when another, smaller brook joined the larger stream, she followed its course for several hundred feet before leaving it again to circle back to the main waterway.
The maiden stayed with the stream for several miles, always climbing higher into the mountains, until finally it was just a small rivulet winding amid the moss-covered rocks. Then it disappeared altogether, where it bubbled out of the ground at its source. Olivia stopped to rest there, filling her canteen with the fresh, cold water and talking a long drink. She was hungry, so she allowed herself a couple pieces of dried beef for strength.
The crack of a stick breaking several yards away broke the stillness, and Olivia froze. It was followed by the sound of old leaves and underbrush being clumsily disturbed. It was coming closer. She crouched, pulled her knife from her belt and waited, trying her hardest not to move a muscle. Whatever it was would soon be right on top of her, she realized, as the sound grew near.
Suddenly, a brown and grey head appeared through a break in the branches a few feet away, with ears twitching. Olivia let her breath escape in a rush, relieved, as she made out the shape of a deer in the half-light. The animal froze as well, as its fine-tuned senses of hearing and smell kicked in. It stared for a minute, seeing her shape in its colorblind fashion. Olivia came out of her crouch, and the animal leaped away into the forest with one strong bound after another, quickly disappearing.
Following her break, the girl resumed her journey, leaving the stream’s source and climbing ever upward. Before long a few clouds began to appear in the sky. The moon slowly lowered into the west, now harder to see behind the trees. There were only a couple hours before dawn, she estimated, so she decided to take a straighter route to make better time now.