“Then stay there! I think that’s yarrow. I’ll only take a second.”
Caleb wavered for a moment, then chased after his sister. When he caught up with her she was kneeling next to the flowers, grinning. “This is great!” River said. “It’s yarrow, all right. The leaves are unmistakable. This is almost better than the elder! Yarrow is really good for cold hands or feet. Mom’ll love this.”
With that, she withdrew a pair of scissors from her backpack and carefully began snipping away, depositing the clippings into the bag. “I wish I had another bag, but mixing them can’t hurt,” she said.
“Great, you got the flowers. Now let’s go! Mom’s probably freaking out about us being late.”
“Calm down, will ya?” River returned the scissors to her backpack and then checked her phone. “We’re only five minutes late. Once Mom tastes the tea I make with the yarrow and elder, she’ll forget all about it. Oh, look! Is that a creek?”
Caleb looked to where his sister was pointing. “Yeah, I think so,” he began. “But we really shouldn’t go any further: it’ll be getting dark soon.”
River paid him no mind as she darted towards the water. “I never knew there was a creek here,” she said. “It’s not on the park maps.”
As she approached, she felt something. A shiver ran through her, as if someone had dumped a bucket of ice water down her back. The hair on her arms stood on end, and a few strands of her chestnut hair lifted, too, as if by static electricity. A moment later, a strange, floating feeling clouded her mind, and a muddled mix of images flashed through her consciousness: a woman with dark hair with a necklace clutched in a fist, a man with a sword, a golden-haired figure shouting unknown words.
Then, as suddenly as if she had been hurled into a wall, everything snapped back into place and her mind was clear again.
River turned, puzzled, and saw Caleb with an equally confused expression. “What was that?” she asked, a slight tremor in her voice.
“No idea,” said Caleb. “And I’m not sticking around to find out. Come on, River. Let’s go home.” And though he wouldn’t admit it, the place was giving him the creeps.
“Alright,” River sighed. “I guess we can come back tomorrow. It’ll be Saturday, and we might be able to bring Mom with us.” She carefully placed the Ziploc bag in one of her backpack pockets, then turned and began walking back toward the sidewalk.
She hummed absently to herself as she strolled along, thinking about what extra herbs she would add to the tea, if any. Maybe some lemon balm and honey. Or should she put in thyme? She was just wondering if she should add some apple mint for flavor when Caleb broke into her thoughts.
“We should have reached the road by now,” he said, looking around, his brows furrowed. “It’s been at least five minutes.”
River halted and looked at their surroundings as well. “Do you think we veered to the side?” she asked at last. “Sharp angle left or right?”
“Maybe.” Caleb pulled out his phone and opened the Map app. “Huh, funny. No service.” He shifted uneasily from foot to foot.
“No service?” River repeated, growing both concerned and annoyed. “I’ll try mine.”
The result was the same. There was no service to the Internet or Wi-Fi. The siblings tried again several times, but eventually gave up.
“Right, now what?” Caleb muttered.
“We could keep on walking,” River suggested, glancing around nervously. “Remember, the forest isn’t very large, and it borders a park. We’ll come to the park or a street soon.”
“Right. Come on.” With that, Caleb strode away, taking such long strides that River struggled to keep up with him. The silence between them was tense, and the singing birds seemed to be laughing at their plight. With every step, the panic bubbling beneath the surface mounted.
To pass the time, River sang softly, her voice slow and wavering but sweet.
“Though the forest calls my name,
And the winds asks to play,
Away from them I must go,
Away, for loved ones await at home.
My place is at the hearth,
And not yet in the wood,
Though the wood be filled with birds and bees and trees.
I long to be with them,
But not yet can I go,
For my place is at hearth and home.
My place is at hearth and home.”
“Nice,” Caleb said, sounding distracted. River nodded, but said nothing more.
Five minutes passed. Then ten. Fifteen. At the half hour mark, Caleb stopped abruptly and ran a hand through his hair, making it spike up in every direction. His expression of fear and confusion nearly pushed River over the edge.
“Caleb, what do we do? What do we do?” she asked, her voice shrill. “The forest isn’t supposed to be this large!”
“Calm down,” Caleb said, trying to soothe his sister. “We’ll just text Mom and tell her we’re lost.” He pulled out his phone and punched in the message, then hit Send.
When the “no service” message popped up, River almost screamed. Instead, she pulled out her own phone and tried. No service. She tried calling. No service. She looked desperately at Caleb.
“Now what?” she asked weakly.
“We keep walking,” Caleb said, but his words were drowned out by a blood-curdling cry. A moment later, three creatures charged out of the bushes. They weren’t much taller than River, but unnaturally long arms and legs made up for their missing stature, like mutant gorillas. Their gray-green skin looked like weathered marble and beady black eyes filled with malice stared at the siblings. Long, pointed ears stretched up, and their hooked noses took up half their faces. Sharp yellow teeth took up the other half.
Caleb yelled at her to run.
The next few seconds were filled with so much chaos that River never could remember exactly what happened after she dropped her backpack and ran, her feet flying over the forest floor. Low-hanging branches and vines whipped her face and roots underfoot tried to trip her. Her mind swam with confusion and horror.
River continued to run, but the crashing sounds of her pursuer indicated that the creature was catching up. It was fast. Too fast. River tried to speed up, but she was a sprinter, not an endurance runner. Her pace began to slacken.
The crashing sounds drew nearer. In a blind panic, River managed to put on a bit of speed, but her legs were already weary and her side was beginning to ache from the sudden strain of running without a warmup exercise. Her breath came in short rasps, and they grated against her throat.
When she came across a stream, River slipped in the water and tripped over the rocks. Her arms shot out to brace herself and the sharp stones stabbed her palms. She managed to scramble up onto the opposing bank, but the creature was a less than five feet away.
Trembling uncontrollably, River gave one last scream. The creature raised a wicked-looking scimitar with a serrated edge. River ducked, waiting.
The blow never fell.
Instead, there was a twang and a soft whoosh of air. A gurgling, growling yowl came from above, and another, thicker whoosh of air and heavy thud as something fell.
Slowly, River opened her eyes. The creature was inches away from her, an arrow lodged in its eye. Black blood poured from the wound.
River, dizzied and sick, managed to crawl less than a foot away before her strength gave out. She collapsed, retching, when she heard voices.
Before she could make any sense of them, darkness claimed her muddled mind.