Nine of Pentacles #5 coming soon
When Miranda had been Fern’s age, a campfire would have been enough to dissuade any pack, but the wolves were bolder now. The wolf packs were larger in number than the packs of humans that they encountered; the beasts were unafraid and they had developed a taste for twilight travelers. Miranda and the girl would have a better chance of survival up in the trees than trying to outrun them. Clinging to the trees all night didn’t sound like particularly restful or safe, however. She set the pack down on the ground and pulled out her hand-sewn hammock.
She wished she still had the camping hammock she and Jorge bought before camping stores went extinct, or at least the carabiners. The metal carabiners had been claimed as “road taxes” back when the lawlessness had first begun and she hadn’t been able to replace them, and the store-bought hammock eventually fell to tatters. This was a good, sturdy hammock, but carabiners made set up a lot faster. It took her half an hour or more to hang the hammock by herself without them. They didn’t have that kind of time.
“Fern, honey, do you know how to tie a double half-hitch knot?” Miranda could hear the child breathing, but she didn’t hear a response. “Fern?”
“Um…” Fern paused. Miranda got the impression that the little girl was distracted by something—something other than the wolves. What in the world could have caught her attention now?
Whatever it was would have to wait. “Fern, honey. Can you tie a double half-hitch knot?”
“What?” Fern said as her awareness swung back to Miranda’s voice. “A double half-hitch knot? I can do a regular half-hitch, is it like that?”
“Fairly close to a half-hitch, but it’s a little more secure. Is it still light enough to see my hands if you stand by the other tree?”
The leaves and grass on the forest floor rustled as the girl trotted over to the far tree before Miranda could hand her the rope to the hammock. “I can see them if I squint.”
Another howl echoed through the trees, and the pack responded. The wolves were moving quickly.
Miranda and Fern would need to move more quickly. “Come over here, please, Fern.” Fern obediently trotted back to Miranda, where the older woman quickly looped the hammock rope around the child’s waist and tied it with a quick-release knot. “Go climb up the far tree, about twice as high as I am tall, got it?”
“Got it.” Miranda looped the rope from the other end of the hammock around her own hips and wasted no time in shimmying up the sturdy tree.
“You passed me!” Fern called out from her perch in the other tree. “I can’t reach the next branch up.”
Miranda fruitlessly scanned the gap between the trees with her eyes, as if that would help locate the girl. She shut her eyes. It didn’t change what she saw, but it did remind her to trust her other senses instead. Miranda started to descend one step at a time, feeling her way back down while listening for Fern’s voice to tell her when to stop. “There! You’re right across from me now!” Miranda stopped, then felt around her for a sturdy branch.
“Fern, honey, do you have any sturdy branches over there to tie the hammock to?”
The leaves across the way rustled as Fern tested the branches. “This one here is strong enough!”
“Good.” Finally. “Ok. Loop the rope around the thickest part of the branch you can reach. Let me know when you’re done.” The occasional howls of the wolves were closer now, moving quickly in their direction. Why couldn’t the beasts just go find an elk to chase?
“It’s looped!” Fern called out from the other tree.
Now the real test. “Ok, Fern, can you still see my hands and fingers from over there?”
“Good. Watch how I tie this.” Miranda deftly secured the rope to the tree with a double half-hitch knot, trying to make each motion of her hands deliberate so Fern could see how it was done. It felt ridiculously exaggerated—Miranda hoped it would be exaggerated enough for Fern. She tried not to hold her breath as she waited for the little girl to figure out the new knot.
“I think I’ve got it!”
The pride in Fern’s voice made Miranda smile. “Good girl! Let’s test it. Can you tug on the end over there and make sure it’s secure?”
“Yup!” Miranda heard rustling then a muted “shit.”
Miranda considered correcting the little girl but decided there was no better time for that kind of language than when being hunted by a pack of wolves. She concentrated on keeping her voice and her breathing steady instead. “What happened, Fern?”
“The knot came untied. I don’t know if I can do this!” Miranda could hear Fern choking back tears of frustration.
“It’s ok. You’re doing fine.” She hoped she sounded more certain than she felt. “Can you still see?”
Fern sniffled, “Mhmm.”
Miranda could now hear a few muted yelps and barks in between the pack howls. The pack was closing in rapidly. “Ok, sweetheart. Watch my hands again. You can do this.” Miranda’s fingers wanted to fly with fear, but she forced herself to use the slow, deliberate movements that would allow Fern to learn the knot.
“Yes, yes!” Fern’s voice was squeaking with excitement. “I see it, I can do it!”
Xipilli screeched overhead as the barking and whining of the pack drew closer. Miranda focused on her breathing; there was nothing to do in these moments but wait. If there was anything Miranda knew how to do, it was to wait. Seconds ticked by like hours.
“Got it! I pull on it and it stays!”
The world began moving again. “Good girl, I knew you could do it!” Miranda could hear the pack more clearly now. They were probably close enough for Fern to see their movement in the distance as they closed in on their quarry. There was no time to go back for the packs. The water-skins they carried would have to get them through the night. “Let’s get in the hammock. Those nasty wolves will just have to move on along.” She and Fern both slid into their sides of the hammock. “Stay out of the middle so it doesn’t sag. And be quiet. Maybe they’ll lose interest.”
Fern gulped. “Mhm.”
Miranda heard the wolves advance into the camp and start sniffing the ground—searching for their favorite treat. Their claws scraped against the bark as they caught Fern and Miranda’s scent in the trees. Several of the wolves whined and yelped in frustration, and one let out a long, mournful howl. Shivers ran down Miranda’s spine. It didn’t sound like the larger pack she’d heard last fall—this was maybe a dozen canines in total—but still more than a match for an old woman and a little girl. The smaller packs in this area were made up of younger, more impulsive wolves, who didn’t like to wait around for dinner. She desperately wanted to reassure Fern and tell her that everything would be alright, but silence was safer.
The hammock started to wobble and twist as Fern squirmed on the other side of the hammock. What was the child doing? They didn’t need the wolves more riled up by movement. Miranda risked a whisper. “What’s going on over there, hun?”
“I’m trying to see like Papi does,” Fern sounded pleased with herself, “so we know what we’re up against.” At least she was keeping her voice low.
The hammock swayed sickeningly. “We don’t need to know how many. We already know it’s too many. We just need them to go away.” Miranda tried to keep her voice even and calm, but it still sounded shaky to her. “Stay still and quiet.”
“Ok.” The hammock swayed once again as Fern settled back into it, then calmed. Miranda breathed a sigh of relief. As she also settled back to out-wait the pack, she felt the hammock shift downward, accompanied by an almost unnoticeably faint cracking sound. Fern’s side of the hammock shuddered downwards.
Shit. “Fern, the…” The branch gave way, loudly, and the little girl’s side of the hammock fell away from the tree. “Cover your head!” Then she, too, was plummeting towards the ground. Time seemed to slow down as she fell, every excruciating twist of the fabric binding her limbs as the hammock rushed toward the forest floor.
They hit the ground hard.
Miranda gasped for air as the beasts attacked, frantically biting at the tough fabric of the hammock that enveloped their intended prey. One of them pinned Miranda to the ground within the protective cocoon. The girl squealed in fright, but not pain.
Xipilli’s call could be heard even over the melee of the pack. The weight of the wolf was suddenly gone, only to be replaced by that of another pack member. Miranda felt the impact more than heard it as the weight of the giant bird descended upon another of the wolves. The wolf yelped, fell heavily in between Miranda and Fern, then lay silent, though it still breathed. Another wolf took its place.
There were just too many of the beasts.
Xipilli screeched at the wolves again. The weight lifted for a second then returned immediately, followed by a thump. Xipilli screamed in pain. Miranda heard him struggling to glide smoothly between the trees. He must have damaged his wing. He wouldn’t be able to help them anymore. She whispered a prayer that he would get away safely.
“Fight, Fern! Fight with everything you’ve got!” She grappled with the animals through the thick fabric, knowing she was probably fighting a losing battle. There was another thunk, and another of the pack yelped and fell heavily between Fern and Miranda. It was not breathing.
Another two thunks echoed through the forest, and the rest of the pack fled. They didn’t have enough members left to lose. The smell of blood permeated the fabric. The forest was still.
“Fern?” The little girl didn’t respond. “Fern, honey, are you ok?” Miranda reached her hand down towards her feet, hoping to find Fern’s ankle, but she couldn’t push past the downed canines.
“Did you say Fern?” The woman who spoke sounded young, just barely into adulthood. “Fern-frond? Is that you in there?”
“Who’s out there?” Miranda called out to the stranger.
“My name is Lu. I’m going to get you out.” Lu? Short for Luisa? Miranda’s niece? She sounded to be the right age. The young woman helped untangle Miranda, then the two of them set about extracting the little girl from the heavy hammock. Fern was unconscious but breathing. Lu spoke again, “Can you see any cuts or abrasions on her? I’m blind.”
The pieces clicked in Miranda’s mind. “Are you Fern’s sister?”
Not her niece then. “I can check her, but I can’t see her. I’m blind too.” The old woman shut her eyes to dredge up her scant nursing experience from three decades ago. She let her hands gently explore the little girl’s bones and joints. The child only flinched once, when Miranda’s hands were near her shoulder. “Her breathing is steady, and I don’t feel any breaks. Her shoulder may be injured though.”
“Let’s get her to my camp.” Miranda winced when she heard Lu pick up the girl. She hoped she wasn’t wrong about the child’s bones. “Did you have any gear in that thing?”
“We had packs, but we left them by the trees.” Miranda wondered if the wolves had torn apart the pack for the jerky or if they had been too intent on their human prey to care about the dried meats.
“We’ll get them later. Give me your hands.” The younger woman placed a flat strip of leather in Miranda’s outstretched hands. “My belt, so we don’t get separated.”
Miranda grasped the leather and hoped Lu wasn’t leading her into a ditch.
She touched her fingers to her whistle, reassuring herself that Xipilli could find her anywhere—if he had managed to get clear of the wolves.
“I don’t have any more arrows on me,” Lu stated. “I don’t want to be unarmed if they come back. My camp is fortified, we’ll be safer there.”
“Is your mother waiting there?” Miranda was having trouble keeping up with the younger woman, even burdened as Lu was. “You were traveling with her right?”
“I was. ” Lu didn’t elaborate on her answer and Miranda was too winded to ask more questions. They walked the next ten minutes or so in near silence, punctuated only by the wolves howling far in the distance. They had moved on to less deadly prey. “We’re nearly there. Mom isn’t there. I was camping alone. I was looking for Marcos and Fern. Where is Marcos?”
“He died,” Miranda managed to gasp out. “I’m sorry.” She wanted to say more but just couldn’t find the breath.
Lu paused for a split second, then continued walking, at a slightly slower pace. “How?”
“He fell off a cliff near my cabin.”
Lu’s silence was deafening.
“We’re here.” Dry leaves crackled beneath Fern as Lu set her down on the ground. Lu guided Miranda to a large log so she could sit down. “Where were you going with Fern?”
“We were headed to Odessa, to find either you or the group Fern was traveling with.” Miranda had so many questions. Where had Lu and Fern’s mother gone? Was she with the other children somewhere? Why was Lu by herself out here? “How did you dispatch those wolves by yourself?”
“I shot them with my crossbow.”
Miranda had tried bow-hunting shortly after she’d gone blind, it had not gone well. If Xipilli hadn’t fed her before her harvests came in, she would have been very hungry that first year. She hoped he was sheltered somewhere safe. How had Lu learned to shoot?
“By sound mostly. Echolocation.” Echolocation? Interesting. Miranda sat in silence for a moment, trying to disentangle her thoughts. She had a lot of questions, and she couldn’t ask them all without sounding like she was grilling the young woman. The leaves rustled as Fern stirred a bit. She should find out what was going on before Fern woke up.
“Where are your mother and the group that Fern was with?” Miranda waited for a response, but there was none. “Lu, what happened? Where is everyone else?”
“We met up. They said Fern and Marcos got separated. We got ambushed.” Lu’s tone was short and her voice was tight—as if every sound that she pulled from her lips was painful.
Miranda didn’t want to push, but she needed more information. “Ambushed?”
“Some ragtag bunch of jerks living in the forest and ambushing people at night.” A clacking sound emanated through the forest as Lu struck the spark for the campfire. “There’s eight or nine of them altogether. I don’t know what they want with my family, but I don’t guess it’s good.”
“We’ve got to go get everyone! Right now!” Fern was awake. Lu was silent in response to Fern’s exclamation.
Miranda broke the tense silence. “Fern, we can’t. There’s just not enough of us with the right skills. Right, Lu?”
“That’s right. That’s why I was going back for Uncle Marcos. He had the skills we needed. We need help to get them out of there.”
“We can get help at Odessa.” Miranda said, “but it’s at least two weeks away.”
“There’s a small village mom and I ran across just two days away, they are calling it Salvation. It was where we originally met up with everyone.”
“What do you know about where they are being held?” Miranda asked.
“Not a lot. They attacked at night. I couldn’t take them all so I slipped away while everyone else was being rounded up. The big guy said something about taking them to camp, but I never even got close to it.”
Readers voted that the group would be going on to Salvation rather than go back to try and scout the kidnapper’s camp.
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