“Petra?” Junie called out; even against the roar of the wind one could never have missed the concern carried in those two syllables. As if arising in response, an eddy spontaneously formed before them, scraping up the smoldering remnants of the campfire, and rolling them into a cone of glowing sparks and embers. Yet it was a fleeting life for the pillar of light, for it had only just begun to gyre and gimble when the thunder that had begun to rumble earlier finally broke into a smashing rain. Fierce, half-frozen drops beat down the obelisk’s firefly dance and killed it with an audible hiss.
“Petra, where are you!” Junie called out again, turning her head at an angle so as to better detect a response.
“Over here, Missus Junie!” Petra stood twenty yards to the right of the still steaming fire pit. Random flashes of lightning lit the girl with splashes of silver. She was staring out over the barren moorland toward the large copse of cedars that had taken hold about the edge of a peat bog. The tightly clustered trees formed a small woods not more than a hundred yards from where they’d set up camp.
In her right hand, Petra securely gripped her baseball bat, Mr. Lightnin’house. “Malus an’ Lottie are in those trees,” she hefted the bat straight out at arms length, using it to point across the moors toward the elongated copse of trees.
Emerson furrowed his brow in annoyance. “Okay, that is mildly interesting, but it could just have easily waited until coffee and gossip over breakfast.”
“But I saw one of them black worms over there! It came right up outta the ground then went shoooosh back down under again.” She looked back at the two adults. “What if it eats them – or eats us?”
“Relax, you’ve been spooked by nothing more of shadows caused by the storm,” said Emerson. “The worm you mentioned was likely just your imagination running away with you.”
“Was not just my imagination running away with me!” Petra shook the end of her bat at Emerson to emphasize her point. “I know what a dang worm looks like.”
“Well, there is nothing imaginary about this rain,” said Junie. “And it is odd that Martin and Lottie would not come in out of it.”
“Petra,” said Emerson. “Run over there to take a look, won’t you?”
“Maybe it would be best if we all went,” suggested Junie.
They had just started across the road when the horses, who until now had been standing quietly between the roadway and trees, suddenly reared up and started to scream.
“Your technique indicates a high level of proficiency,” said Lottie, as Malus continued to thrust. “Do you handle your weapon daily?”
“Be quiet,” Malus sneered as he spun around a tree and struck out at an imaginary foe. “I need to concentrate.”
Lottie remained silent, holding a torch in each hand as she evaluated Malus’s practice until a loud clap of thunder broke across the sky and lightning sizzled overhead. “I am detecting a change in atmospheric pressure indicating the imminent commencement of precipitation.”
“What?” said Malus.
The deluge was almost instant. Under the attack of the torrential rain, the flames of the two torches Lottie held in her hands began to sputter. Before they had a chance to start back to camp they found themselves in total darkness.
“Follow me,” Lottie instructed as she started for a space between the trees.
“Hold on!” said Malus. “You follow me.”
“Which way?” asked Lottie.
Malus bit his lip and looked around the darkened woods. He nodded towards the space between the trees. “That way.”
They had just started out again when Malus suddenly halted. “Wait!” he whispered. “Do you hear that?”
“Yes,” came Lottie’s clipped response.
From the woods all around them there came an odd clicking sound, like a dozen woodblocks tapping out an asynchronous rhythm.
“Do you see something hanging in that tree ahead?” asked Malus. Just then another streak of lightning lit the air around them. Tied to a gnarled branch about ten feet above the ground was a lifesize twisted effigy formed by a weave of twigs.
“Curious, I do not recall observing rustic artwork on our way into these woods,” said Lottie. “Yet I believe any investigation should wait until the weather clears. Follow.” Lottie brushed passed Malus and began to lead them through the dark.
“Hold on,” said Malus after they had been walking for several of minutes. “What’s that?” He pointed to a dark shape hanging from a tree branch. It was the same twisted twig effigy they had passed earlier. “You’ve led us in a circle,” Malus accused.
“Impossible,” stated Lottie.
The woodblock staccato continued to dance around with a dizzy and disorienting randomness.
In the distance they heard the horses start to scream as a tremendous flash lit the world around them.
“Petra!” Junie called out against the tremendous roar of the rain. “It’s so dark. How can you possibly see where you are going?”
“Instinct missus,” Petra replied.
“What is that annoying clicking sound?” Emerson complained, peering as deeply as he could into the darkness. “It is totally freaking me out!”
“I can’t even tell where it’s coming from,” said Junie holding Emerson with one hand and her gun with the other. “It seems to be coming from everywhere.”
“This is crazy!” Emerson shouted against the rage of the storm. “Lottie and the Squire are probably already back in camp! We should turn back!”
Wait!” Petra had stopped and was pointing with her bat. “I see a cabin just up ahead!”
“I see it too,” Junie continued to shout in order to be heard above the wind’s howl. “There are no lights on inside! Perhaps it is abandoned!”
“I have a good idea,” suggested Emerson. “Let’s wait inside that dark cabin until the rain stops. It’s freezing out here. Maybe we can light a fire inside and get warm.”
“You are leading us in circles!” accused Malus for the second time in the past hour.
“I have not deviated from the original route according to my compass,” explained Lottie. “We have not travelled in a circle.”
“Then explain that!” Malus pointed at the twig effigy now swinging wickedly in the hard driving rains.
“I cannot,” replied Lottie. “My only suggestion is to carry on.”
Malus glared at her for a moment, the rain and the cold doing nothing to temper his cranky disposition. “Carry on then!” he shouted, not in anger but merely to be heard above the wind and rain.
It was only a few minutes before Lottie stopped again.
“What is it now?” Malus complained.
“I see a cabin just ahead,” Lottie informed him. “It appears to be abandoned.”
“Come on!” Malus shouted, shouldering past Lottie to retake the lead. “Let’s get out of this rain!”