She rode in a daze for miles, farther from her home than she’d ever been as the afternoon crept into dusk. The sunset was pink tinged with orange, and the forest was alive with chatter around her, the birds and squirrels and rabbits all basking in delight at the change of weather. Flower buds peeked from their green shells, ready to blossom any moment. The air was still and calm, and Winston huffed, his nostrils scattering the dirt that had accumulated earlier.
She pulled him to an abrupt stop, paused in the middle of the woods, utterly alone for the first time in her entire life. She found she wasn’t frightened, but instead numb. Without a definitive thought, she turned Winston around, determination taking root in her core. She would not abandon her family. She would fight off whoever had followed her mother and kill every last one.
How? Her subconscious bit back. She shoved aside the negative thoughts, urging her horse into a quicker pace against his will. They rode for a few hours, and much to Hollis’ dismay, nothing seemed familiar. There was no road to follow after a certain point, and Winston had done his best to pick his way over the ferns and logs.
As night fell, she knew she was lost, and a new surge of panic rose in her chest. She had only a small pocketknife for defense, and hadn’t packed food or water. But more urgent was the need to save her family, and she was currently wasting precious time, lost and wandering through the forest.
By the time her surroundings were unnavigable, she slid down, tying Winston to a branch in the darkness and leaning against the trunk of a sturdy tree. Unable to sleep, she fell into a fitful stupor, waiting on the sun to rise.
Hollis had been wandering in the woods for three days. Her time alone hadn’t been unproductive, though; she’d been able to process her anguish, then anger, and then hopelessness. She’d been able to find water, but food was another matter altogether. She cursed her father for dying so soon after her birth, for not teaching her how to navigate a map, or build a shelter, or trap a rabbit.
She cursed her mother for keeping her hidden away like a gem, never having planned for an event such as the one that had transpired. She couldn’t help but feel things would be awfully different, had she learned useful survival skills. Had she ever been able to see another human being and learn from them.
She ambled along, Winston walking at her slow pace, happy to have her off his back. His once amber coat was now covered in dust and burrs, and she could swear he was glaring at her every chance he got. Night began to fall, and with it came the now-familiar feeling of defeat. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance, and her stomach grumbled, wondering what morsel he’d been able to ensnare.
Sighing, she paused, braiding her loose blond hair yet again in an attempt to keep it out of her vision. She didn’t seem to take notice that as night finally fell, the rest of the land around her hushed in anticipation of a sinister event.
It started with the snap of a twig, making Winston jerk his great head, but Hollis paid it no mind, tongue between her teeth as she cursed her unruly hair. There were no predators anywhere, anymore. It was likely an elk or a deer. She glanced around for a suitable tree to lean against for the night, noting she was in a nice wide clearing, the grass beneath lush and tall. She wondered why Winston wasn’t struggling against his bridle to have a nibble.
Another snap of a twig.
This one caught her attention. Winston’s ears tilted in the direction of the sound as he tossed his head. She gripped the reigns tight, reaching into the band of her athletic pants for her small knife. Movement caught her eye, directly in front of her. A man materialized from the darkness of the trees, his dark hair a mottled, wild mess, his face bearded and smeared with dirt. He grinned at her with yellowed teeth.
Her heart stuttered. Willow and Hollis had always chattered about meeting another human, particularly a man, and how they would be handsome and charming, just like in their books. But Hollis knew that this man was far from their girlish fantasies.
He stepped forward, his dark clothing ragged and melting off his bony frame. Another appeared beside him, this one fat, his stomach bulbous and protruding like a bloated bullfrog, his head bald and shimmering in the firelight of the torch he held. And then another, and another, and another, until there were seven men, all destitute, all hungry, their eyes keen on the innocent beauty that was Hollis.
Finding a woman was a rarity in these parts, but finding one that was so pristine was even rarer, and she could feel the tangible excitement they exuded. Winston’s nose nudged her neck, sending shivers up her spine, but she knew what he was telling her; run.
In a flash, she threw her foot in the stirrup, and he was fleeing through the trees before she’d even settled into the saddle. Hoots and hollers followed her escape, their torches dotting the night with orange glows. Their laughs were booming and hysterical, and they seemed to erupt from all around her. She urged Winston faster through the darkness, turning to glance behind and ensure their pursuit was slower than she was able to go.
It was her fatal mistake.
She felt the thick branch catch her chest and send her flying backwards onto the springy forest floor, tears leaping from her blue irises as she fought to regain her breath. Her backpack had braced most of her impact, but Winston had continued on in confusion. She gasped, gaping for air, clawing her way to a log, hoping to at least hide from her pursuers. Their dripping torches and gruff voices indicated they were near.
She clapped a hand over her mouth, stymieing her breaths, watching in horror as the first two crept past her hiding spot, unaware she was just ten feet away. More followed on the opposite side of her, and she willed herself to be still as stone. Riddled with anxiety of the unknown, she felt strange, instinctual emotions flood her veins, settling deep in her lower abdomen. The stories her mother had told her—things that could have happened to Willow—circulated in her brain like vultures over a fresh kill.
She knew not what to expect, though, for hearing a warning and experiencing the trauma were two entirely different things.
She was yanked from her hiding spot by her backpack and thrown to the ground once more, greeted by a sneering grin, his long face illuminated in a ghastly light from the torch. She felt her resolve fizzle, replaced by stark terror. Having never been prepared for a moment such as this, fighting was not her first option. She froze, her mind a whirling mess. This was the closest she’d ever come to another human before, the first one she’d ever seen in person.
“I’ve got us a beaut!” he called out to his band of misfits, eyes crazed. Hollis could only stare at him, perplexed. He had huge ears and only a tuft of hair on the sides of his head, his teeth gnarled and full of rot. They all reeked as they pressed in around her, shoving one another to get a better look.
The man who’d grabbed her reached for her once more, and she jerked away, smacking his hand. Angered, he struck her, and pain bloomed along her cheek. She held the tender flesh, teary eyes staring back up at him.
“Back off Jory, it’s my turn!” the fat one said, shoving the thinner man out of the way. He produced a knife from his belt in a flash, holding it under the fat one’s wobbly chin.
“I found her, I get her,” he said, to which the rest of the group grumbled assent. He turned his heady gaze back to her, tossing his knife to the ground and fumbling with his decrepit trousers. Hollis watched on, reaching for her own knife, her heart sinking when she realized she’d dropped it in the clearing.
She was too stunned to beg for mercy, her gaze flitting to each man in the group. She felt herself jostled around, a knee wedged between her legs and the tug of her tight pants. A blast of cool air hit her, and a heaviness settled over her body.
“No,” she muttered, voice small and afraid. The men in the circle chuckled at her tiny plea.
She shook her head, feeling the man trail slimy kisses along her bare neck. She pushed against his chest, more fervent than before as her fear mounted and took control, her adrenaline giving her strength.
“No!” she yelled, thrashing her legs now. She felt another blow to her face, this time with a closed fist, and she lay dazed for a few seconds, the torch lights blurring above her, all their grinning faces swirling together. She felt something hot and stiff pressed against her thigh, and she clawed at the man’s face, filling her lungs to scream her fear and rage to the desolate night sky. It was all so unfair, her entire captive life. She wouldn’t be here, now, if she’d known how to fight, how to survive.
Willow would still be here, too.
The group shuffled and split, and an inhumane sound tore through the otherwise hushed woods. The body atop hers was gone, and her body moved without thought as she yanked her pants back up and kicked away.
Screams erupted, petrified and ungodly, but she watched on in fascinated horror as another man swung a glinting machete into her main attacker’s midsection. She was far enough away that his blood splatter didn’t coat her face, but she watched as his companions’ faces were drenched in crimson. The giant wielding the weapon held her attacker’s arm up into the air like a prize, his torso completely severed from the rest of his body. It thudded to the ground with an air of finality.
But the man, beast—monster, was far from done. Unable to tear her eyes from the scene, she watched on as he swung and killed and chased down every last man, until only the gurgles of their dying met her ears. The torches extinguished themselves, one by one, and she fell back onto the underbrush, her entire body tingling, her vision closing in around her.
The last thing she saw was a pair of golden eyes before she succumbed to the darkness.