Her body told her it was time for another break. They were demanded more and more frequently, and she suspected the beginning of a fever. She eased herself to the ground and off her cut and blistered feet, taking as much care as possible for her other bruises, breaks, and lacerations. When her rear finally touched the ground, she was breathing more heavily from the effort than from simply walking along. Once it was done though, and she lay still, her aches and pain became a pulsing numbness.
Were it not for the healing ribs, she would have heaved out a sigh of relief, but she wondered if she was actually feeling better or worse. Moving up her body, she consciously worked to relax every muscle. Calves, then thighs. Tighten. Relax. Butt. Abs. Her efforts aborted at her shoulders. Every muscle tensed suddenly at a new noise coming from behind. Skin prickled as every hair stood on end. Something instinctual told her this sound was very bad. There were ticking, or clicking, noises along with what she would best describe as many scurrying legs. Her stalker hissed and growled at this new player.
Perhaps my stalker found other prey? No, she is an ambush hunter. This hissing and growling is defensive posturing. With that thought, a more disturbing question arose. What would be attacking a natural predator?
Whatever it was could not be good for her. Any doubt the cat was the one in trouble vanished with an eruption of yowling cries cut suddenly and sickeningly short. The cat was not well-fed and might not keep this new hunter – or hunters? – sated for long. This was the reason the forest was so barren. The thought washed over her with uncomfortable certainty. Fear and panic, so long held at bay, surged to the fore and held her paralyzed.
The world froze with her. Nothing moved, nothing sounded in the woods as she held her breath, her eyes darting from shadow to shadow. The shuffling resumed and threw her fear up another level, but it also startled her into action. With teeth clenched against groans of pain, she pushed back to her feet and set off at a rapid pace.
Sometime between fighting down the fear of her pursuers and the pain drilling into her deeper with every step, the sun finished its course through the sky. The chill settling in was simply another minor discomfort, but she could not continue in the complete darkness descending. It would be hours before the moon rose enough for her to travel safely, if she was able to continue at all. She found tears on her cheeks she had not even known she shed. Her body betraying the agony her mind denied. It lanced through her with the effort to lower herself into a resting position. Exhaustion, rather than relaxation pushed her drifting into blackness.