The electric fear, after a while of standing still, looking dumbly out to surroundings that she was blind to, became weary, and it poured out of her in a gasping sigh.
You can't be scared forever.
The cloud of tension lifted from her vision like a vulture as she properly observed her surroundings, taking it in a single, sweeping glance. She was surprised to see that her eyes were in fact familiar with the scene laid out before her. It might have once been a garden, with twisting thickets of overgrown blackberry brambles pervading the flagstone paths, the glitter of dewy blackberries in the moonlight, and gray walls rising on four sides to form a small courtyard. A fat white moon observed it silently, as if questioning her presence here so late at night.
This was the abandoned castle atop the hill.
Memories flooded through her, fresh, ones of scaling the ivy-ridden walls, chasing her brother through the crumbling corridors, the dizzying, glorious feeling of being at the top of the enormous sycamore that had burst through the cobbles...
But it was so different now. In the cold darkness, the eerie moonlight, and threat of imminent death, it was a completely different place.
She took inventory of her situation, trying to find some way that this could not be true, trying to find a story that ended with things returning to how they used to be, and found none.
There was no escaping it.
She would have to...pick the blackberries, however odd a request it was.
As she looked around, her stomach sank. It wasn't blackberry season yet. Most, if not all, of the moonlit blackberries in the mass of brambles were lovely shades of scarlet, very prominently unripe. It was the early bloomers, the special snowflakes that had reacted violently with the spring sun's rays, the rare ripe blackberry that she would have to find. This was not going to be easy.
Gingerly picking her way across the thorn-covered ground, slowed considerably by her enormous dress, she examined the largest tangle of thorny branches and leaves, searching for a flash of rich, dark purple that gave away such a snowflake. After a quick survey, she stooped down to look on the underside of the thorn-studded boughs. To her encouragement, the telltale black blackberry glittered there among a magenta cluster. She dropped it into her basket.
One down, eleven more to go.
Anna followed the path of blackberry with disbelieving eyes as it dropped into the basket. She recounted, and the number came up strong. She was one away.
It was now that she paused from the monotonous, repetitive search-and-gather motions to fully consider what she was going to do. She recalled the cold blade under her chin, the harsh and mysterious tones of her captors, the bruise that festered upon her scalp. It was crystal clear that whatever they wanted the blackberries for, their motives were almost certainly of malicious terms.
And she-what was she? She was their little puppet, a instrument to carry out their sinister plot, a victim of their conniving schemes, nothing less. She couldn't accept that she would have to be key in fulfilling whatever toxic desire they had in mind. She conjured dreams of heroism and grandeur, in which she used her vital role to her advantage, forming a grand master plan and single-handedly leaving their plans in disarray.
In these imaginings, however, the details of this plan, were, unfortunately, glossed over. No amount of thinking produced any plan of the sort. There was nothing she could do. Heaving in a despairing sigh, she picked the final blackberry.
Right on cue, a cold wind rustled the moonlit leaves of the bramble, skipping across her skin. Looking up at the moon, Anna saw that she had succeeded. It was midnight. The pale moon hung high in the inky ocean of sky, as if sealing her fate. The song of late-night crickets filled the silence.
As if in answer, a hand silently extended from behind a stone brick wall.
Anna stared, both bewildered and mesmerized by such a specter. Clutching her basket, she deduced that it must be the hand of her captors, and then looked at it with a new fear. Once she gave them the basket, there was no going back. Her fingers and legs suddenly were made of lead, frozen with pure indecision. Slowly, unwillingly, she felt herself take a shaky step forward, compelled by terror and the undeniable, powerful desire to live.
She took another step forward.
She was going to do it.
She had no choice.
It was actually an accident. It really was. But afterwards Anna would not have said so.
It was a magnificent trip, too.
Anna sailed forward in a flamboyant arc, arms flailing, as she sent basket and blackberries flying. She face-planted into the dust, pain shooting like needles through every part of her body. The basket tumbled a foot or so ahead of her, and the blackberries spilled everywhere in a cuneate splatter across the flagstones.
In deathly fear of rebuke, she quickly jumped to her feet, ineptly scooping up the blackberries into the basket, her mind racing. She straightened, and in a very disgruntled manner, held out the basket, her eyes furiously glued to the ground. She felt a cold hand take the basket handle. A susurrus of aggravated muttering rose up from the vagabond group, and that of counting. She waited expectantly.
"Where's the thirteenth one-"
"I'll get it."
Anna dove behind a bush, lightly grazing her arms on the thorns. Sucking away the blood, she made rapid, tangled movements as she slowly eased toward her goal.
It was off. She was now only in her own clothes once more. The wretched dress now lay in a dejected heap in the dirt. Now with such a snag in escape removed, Anna felt at ease, as she saw the possibilities of escape open. Letting out a a sigh of relief, she looked up
Her plans had single handedly become a hot, smoking wreck, and her visions of heroism and flawless carry-out were in a instant shattered into smithereens. With only her instincts to guide her now, it was almost on impulse that she grabbed the thirteenth blackberry and tossed it into the stewing pot of miscreants. Not looking back, she violently jumped the wall, falling with a sickening crunch on the ground outside. Numb to the pain that now pumped through her body, she crazily jumped up and ran.
Luminous white fur suddenly filled her vision. She blindly grabbed on, and croaked out a hoarse "Go."
Suddenly her stomach was ripped out of her and left behind as she almost was sent flying, if it weren't for the disgruntled grip of her numb fingers. Wind buffeted her ears she she rocketed over the moonlit prairie. Regaining control, she struggled to sit up, to get a hold on what had just happened. Her blurred vision slowly came into focus as they flew across the grass.
She was riding a bear.
Everything she had been taught about bears screamed at her to let go, to get as far away as possible, to fear it. But they were going at such a speed that letting go meant death. Suddenly they were airborne, and Anna's paralyzed heart suddenly flew into her throat, then into her shoes as they landed in the water, hard, with a massive splash.
Anna tumbled off the bear's back at the impact, and into the water. Everything was suddenly still. She looked up, quaking, at the bear.
It wasn't like any bear she had been told about, at least. The moon-colored, luminescent fur almost seemed to glow, and a pair of intelligent blue eyes looked down at her. The sight was so strange, and the night had been so surreal, that she failed to summon any conventional fear.
"What are you?"
Her clothes were soaked through. Looking around, she was puzzled to recognized the mud-caked walls of earth the cradled the water that she stood waist-deep in. But it couldn't be. That very morning the creek had been dry.
Anna looked down at her hands. The one she had snatched the final blackberry with was stained purple from gripping it so hard. The purple blot looked like blood in the moonlight, and it seemed to burn into her palms, hissing "You did this. You gave them what they wanted. Now we're all doomed." She suddenly felt overwhelmed with the weight of her blunder. She stood, motionless in the rippling waters, not knowing who she was or where to go.