The thick moss on the forest floor soaked in their footsteps.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Tina spoke in a whisper, as if her own small voice would shatter the stillness of the dense forest.
Jake shrugged and tried to keep his eyes focused forward. “This is what they said to do. Avoid the path. Enter at the boulder. Head straight west.” He shifted the bundle in his arms so the bulging sack lay over his other narrow shoulder. Tina’s nimble fingers found his elbow but he didn’t shake away his little sister’s touch this time.
“I know but it’s so…dark.”
“And if we don’t hurry, it’ll only get darker.” Jake increased his pace. Tina managed to keep up with a rapid rise in her step.
Around them the branches drooped with thick strands of musky moss. The rising canopy arched overhead. Hand sized leaves blotted out the faint traces of blue sky streaked with feather thin clouds and ribbons of peach and orange as the sun dropped towards the horizon. As the light faded, the shadows of the trunks grew deeper and cast long pillars of darkness across the terrain.
Jake slowed their pace after Tina caught her foot on a third jut of root. She huddled now next to his arm and he tried to ignore her trembling.
“It won’t be much longer,” he said quietly, unsure if he was speaking to himself or his cowering sibling.
“Those are just stories, Tina.” Her fingers clung to his elbow.
“But nothing.” He shifted the bag to the other side and knocked Tina’s grasp off his arm. “There’s no one here but us and soon we’ll be on the other side, at Aunt Jeana’s where it’s warm and safe.”
Tina scurried at his side. In the fading light he caught the sight of her pout. If she was angry at him however, Jake knew she was less likely to be afraid.
A gust of wind passed above their heads, stirring the branches and dousing them in a rain of dried leaves. Jake brushed the clinging strands out of his hair while Tina plucked them from her dress. The wide leaves coated the spongy floor and crunched under their steps.
“Ow -” she muttered as her foot caught in another root and sent her to her knees.
Jake sighed and turned to wait for her.
She gathered herself back off the debris littered ground and dusted her palms on the front of her skirt.
“Ow…” she said again. She drew her palm up towards her face.
“What is it?”
“Just a cut, I think.” She shifted, allowing the fading light to fall upon her hand.
Blood glistened in a pool around the sharp thorn sunk into her flesh and a single drop dripped towards the mossy ground.
“What? Not like I did it on purpose.”
“Yeah, well…” Jake set his bundle on to the ground and glanced at the growing shadows encircling them before taking his sister’s hand. He grabbed the thorn in between his fingers and gave it a tug. Tina drew in a quick inhale then bit down on her lower lip to keep from crying out.
“One more…” He gave the small prong a quick jerk. Tina gave a slight whimper as it ripped free.
Jake pulled his dirty handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it onto her hand.
“All done.” He tucked the bloodied thorn into the folds of the cloth before pressing Tina’s fingers down to keep the pressure on the wound.
“Do you think they’ll notice?”
Jake rolled his eyes and tried to sport a smirk on his face. “Who?”
He turned away from her wide eyes and pale face, putting his concentration into heaving their bundle back onto his shoulder. “There’s no one here, Tina.”
“They’re supposed to be able to smell it…smell blood…smell if you’re hurt.”
Jake shook his head and reoriented himself with the line of trees before him. A faint silhouette of trunks spread out between them and the distant haven of city lights like a marching army. The wind cut through the trees again, sending a chill down Jake’s spine.
It was the wind, he argued to himself, causing the nervous shiver in his shoulders.
He stomped on through the debris, passing by one tree then the next, keeping them in line so their path overland maintained a westward trek. Tina scampered after him. Her wounded hand found the crook of his elbow again as they melted into the depths of the forest.
Behind them the first dark creature skittered silently along their path. It paused where the first droplet of Tina’s blood had smacked onto the ground and lowered its elongated muzzle. The leaves stirred under an inaudible snort. The head snapped up, glistening onyx eyes following the trail of crushed leaves and bent branches from Jake and Tina’s journey. Others padded to the creatures side, gathering as one unified pack before they dashed off in silent pursuit.