Read Part Two: Temptation
Read Part Four: Glitter
"Straightforward" was certainly one word for our situation.
"Heart-racing", "terrifying" and "adrenaline-fueled" also fit quite well. So did the phrase "We are so unbelievably screwed!". I'm sure I could have come up with more, if I hadn't been busy running for my life.
I don't care if Cattle were supposed to be gentle; those horns were un-naturally sharp!
I marked this latest incident down on the list of other seemingly-harmless things had turned out to be potentially fatal. At the very least, the list of things that turned out either a lot more dangerous or complicated than they seemed. If I hadn't suffered from Anxiety before this journey, I certainly would by the time it was over!
The Old Woman had led us as far as the path of marigolds lasted, stopping where the ash-covered plains suddenly gave way to a green valley. "This is the end of The Wastes. You've reached the next stage of your journey."
That would have been a lot more reassuring if she hadn't somehow managed to vanish between one glance and the next.
I felt as though I'd almost forgotten what grass and trees looked like, after three days in a cave, and during the long trek through The Wastes, and the dry plains that surrounded the Safehouse before that. I didn't know how long I stared down at the valley. Perhaps it was longer than I realized, and the Old Woman had other, more important things to do that watch us stare like idiots who'd never seen grass before?
My feeling that something was very, very wrong here was only getting stronger.
Adrien bumped me gently with his hip. "I'm starting to see what you and Violet meant. You're right, Leslie, there's something bigger going on here."
Violet must have been the short girl I'd talked to in the cave. I'd been on the verge of a concrete suspicion before our temporary guide showed up, but try as I might, I couldn't remember it now. Well, if it was important, I was sure it would come back to me eventually...
I looked back and up at my parents, "Should we start walking?"
My father had developed something of a thousand-yard-stare over the past few days. My mother got this look, sometimes, as though I could see a part of her soul dying. It was easy to see where they were coming from.
Both of them shook their heads. "It's a good vantage point, we'll search for potential danger, first."
That was a very good point. The air shimmered, and I blinked, convinced that it was the effect of something in my eye. The "coincidences" in this place were setting my teeth on edge.
Or maybe it wasn't my eyes.
Where before there had been an expanse of green, dotted with flora in assorted colours, there were some new additions to the landscape.
What I'd assumed to be a large rock shifted, revealing a head, and flicked it's tail; a pure white bovine with long, slender horns. A hillock covered in crimson flowers became a matching red one. Bull or cow or steer?
I suppose it didn't really matter. All through the valley, cattle were appearing out of seemingly nowhere. I started to get a very, very bad feeling.
A woman with sun-weathered skin spoke up from near the middle of the group, drawing her children closer to her, "Cattle are usually peaceful, unless you're aggressive or they're in... ah, season. If we just move slowly and calmly, we may be able to get through without drawing their attention."
Someone else scoffed, "Then why are you so nervous?"
The woman glared, "Why not? It isn't as though we haven't seen plenty of things that should have been harmless suddenly turn otherwise!"
I wish that she didn't have a point. I wasn't sure that my nerves could take much more of this. "So we start slowly, and be ready to run like hell."
We'd passed maybe a dozen cattle, grazing quietly and ignoring us, when it happened.
One of the cattle raised it's head, pure black, horns glinting like knives in the sun. It eyed us with a speculative look, and I wondered if, like dogs and horses, it could sense my fear. A lot of people in our party were trying to hide behind each other, with varying degrees of subtlety.
One by one, the rest of the cattle raised their heads, the white and red ones I'd first noticed shifting just enough to see that they were, in fact, bulls. The woman who knew about cattle froze in place. "If anyone is wearing red, get rid of it now!"
Any red clothing I owned had long since faded to pink, and all eyes turned to the few redheads in our midst. Said carrot-tops paled and tried to shrink themselves down. Adrien pulled off his shirt, and I couldn't help raising an eyebrow at the abdominal muscles that I hadn't expected.
I managed not to blurt out anything embarrassing as he tossed the shirt to the nearest redhead. "Sorry about the smell, but cover your hair with that!"
The end result, with the assorted shirts and other articles of clothing pulled half over their heads, with only the faces visible, looked vaguely like a very misshapen hijab.
In another time and place, I might have laughed. Here and now, we froze as still as statues, hoping that the cattle would go back to their meal. Please, anyone who might be listening, let this not be the day I die...
The black bull snorted, pawing at the ground, mirrored by the white and red bulls. The cattle located between the three found better places to exist. The white bull let out an affronted huff. The red bull lowered its head.
The women who knew something about cattle swore under her breath. "Never mind. Run!"
We obeyed, veering around where the bulls were locked in a bovine Battle Royale. Even that might not be a safe path for long, because more and more cattle were forming up behind them. Hopefully they kept each other occupied until we were out of reach.
Was the fabled Sanctuary really worth this? For all that we hadn't had much back home, we hadn't spent every day evading things trying to kill us, either!
There came a bellow, loud enough to shake the ground beneath our feet, from behind us.
It was quickly followed by the pounding of hooves, enough hooves to be mistaken for rumbling thunder. Shortly after that, a piercing scream of agony in a deep, masculine voice. Clearly, the cattle had decided that we were worth putting aside their differences, after all.
The scream trailed off into a wet gurgle, and a meaty thump. We didn't have long to worry about that, because more screams followed quickly. The adults tried to keep us in the middle of the group, but there was no telling how long that would last.
A huge, heavy mass barrelled past me, sending me flying. I managed to roll out of the way of raging hooves, before Adrien yanked me to my feet. "Come on!"
My father soared above our heads, a dark red patch spreading over his formerly-grey shirt. The same dark red that stained the horns of the white bull, as it's snowy head turned in our direction.
I drew myself up as tall as I could (puberty hadn't favoured me in that area), wanting to at least make a good end, and the bull charged. As the last second, he stopped dead, sharp horns barely inches away from my throat. Hot breath snorted into my face, and he veered away toward the adults.
I had no idea what just happened, and I wasn't waiting around to find out!
Grabbing the other kids, we sprinted away, trusting that the adults would follow us.
By the time we reached the end of the valley, breathless and exhausted and half-carrying each other, the screams had stopped.
We hadn't been chased the last few hundred meters, either, and it quickly became all too obvious why.
A quick head-count revealed that all of the children were alive and accounted for, but if we had an adult over the age of twenty with us, they were well cameoflaged.
More accurately, they were out of sight somewhere behind the line of bulls that stood between us and any possibility of going back to check for surviviours.
Abruptly, the bulls vanished, as quickly as they had appeared, and the growing darkness was suddenly illuminated by green light dancing across the sky, coming to rest a few hundred meters away.
Join me next week for Part 6 of the Journey: Mystical Lights...