When I hear the branches rustle, I almost don’t recognize the fact that it signals approach. Then my paranoia kicks in, and I roll over quickly-
-and wind up knocking foreheads with a ten-year-old boy.
“Ow!” We yelp in sync, I jerk back, then yelp in pain again as I get tangled up in the thorny branches of whatever bush has taken over my bed.
“Stop moving! Stop!” I freeze at his first word, but the thorns currently embedded in my cheekbone really suggest that I belay that. “My name is Henry, Pan kidnapped me, I don’t know how you got here or how you’ve survived in a Dreamshade bush for so long, but if you keep moving, you’ll kill us both!”
“How?” I ask, my voice hoarse, he makes a small noise, I see him shift his head, I realize he didn’t quite catch on. “How could I kill us? This bush is impaling me in so many places I can’t move. Hell, I haven’t moved in years, literal years, Henry. I…I can’t even see when it’s day or night anymore, this bush is so dense.”
“What do you mean it’s ‘impaling you’?! Dreamshade is deadly! It’s poisonous! How would you be alive?”
“You’re what? Ten? You’re too inexperienced to be classifying plants correctly a hundred percent of the time! Now, crawl in here! You mentioned a kidnapper?” Henry stays still, crouching by the side of my bed, “What are you waiting for? The sheets are dirty, but you must be too from crawling under those – WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING HENRY?”
Henry ducks back down, I hear the branches rustle slightly, then muffled pounds against the ground that signal running feet. I roll my eyes at the stubbornness that is apparently ingrained into all humans and blossoms brashly upon becoming ten.
I spend a long time wiggling uncomfortably like I usually do and worryingly like I used to do, which is worrying in itself. I chew on my cracked lips, uproot the flora growing on my hands by clenching and unclenching them repeatedly, I move my feet up and down, uprooting more of the undergrowth growing on me, and I wiggle under the constraints of the white, glow-in-the-dark, flowering plants that grow on my chest, all while getting repeatedly jabbed and stabbed and impaled by thorns that drip with possibly poisonous sap.
Then I hear multiple pairs of running feet.
“BUSH GIRL! BUSH GIRL!” Christ, I forgot to introduce myself. Nice going, idiot.
“I’M ASTARA! I’M IN THE THORNY BUSH WITH DARK BERRIES THAT HAS CHOKED UNDERGROWTH UNDERNEATH IT!” It takes me a minute to remember how to gather the air into my lungs to scream, but once I do, it comes blasting out like a siren. “HENRY, PLEASE BE CAREFUL!”
“WE WILL BE!” He screams back as they all come sliding to a stop. I hear mildly deeper voices talking to him outside the bush, and straining my head to the side, my ears feel like rubber bands as I focus and focus on the voices but, like I’ve been saying, the bush is dense. It’s impossible to make out words, I only manage to make out that there are two older boys, both of them are alarmed, and both of them… No… Can’t focus on that.
Henry is pleading with them, they’re scrambling madly, they are all clueless as to what to do in this situation. I remain tense in my bush, lying as still as I can so that the thorns stop tearing my skin, something is tickling at the back of my mind the more they worry.
“Machete!” I finally remember and yelp, jumping for the opposite side of my bed, then cursing violently as the thorns ruthlessly do their job and tear my skin to shreds.
“WHAT’S GOING ON?” A boy with a dark voice filled with authority barks (alarm bells ring in my head, and I can’t help but remember Henry mentioning that he was kidnapped) I continue to curse as I try to rearrange the thorns into a less-agonizing position, but it’s a dense bush weighing down on me. There is no negotiation for 'less-agonizing’.
“I’M BEING STUPID IS ALL! I REMEMBERED I HAVE A MACHETE IN MY BACKPACK ON THE OTHER SIDE OF MY BED AND MOVED TO GET IT, BUT THE THORNS STOPPED ME BECAUSE…WELL. I’M ASSUMING YOU’RE NOT BLIND OR DUMB.”
“YOU’RE ASSUMPTIONS WOULD BE CORRECT.”
“IS ANYONE OUT THERE SMALL ENOUGH TO REACH UNDER THE BUSH ON THAT SIDE AND PUSH MY BACKPACK TO ME?-”
“NO NEED. WE’LL FREE YOU.” It takes every fiber of my being to not start yelling at this guy right here and now. Regardless of the fact that he’s rescuing me.
I may be the one trapped, but I can help!
I huff as they go back to talking, I recognize the sound of Henry’s feet as he runs around the bush. He slides to a stop on the other side, then scrambles under the brambles, I hear him grab my backpack.
“Henry!” I hiss sharply,
“Yeah?” He pauses,
“The one who’s talked with me, is he the one that kidnapped you?”
“Yes, his name’s Pan. He’s really dangerous and really powerful.”
“Once I’m outta here, you are to not leave my side, got it? I don’t look it, but I’m easily as dangerous as a trained soldier, if not more so.”
“Pan is worse.” Henry scrambles out before I can reply, dragging my backpack with him, I turn my head back around. I warily focus on this ‘Pan’ boy, I could tell he was dangerous before, and there is still more pressing matters (getting out of the bush to protect Henry) but he does hold a dark aura to him.
I’m snapped back to the outside of my head by the sounds of the boys talking, the third one seems disgruntled, Pan seems confused, and Henry is insistent. “WHAT’S WRONG, GUYS?”
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS THIS HANDLE MADE OF?” The third guy asks I snort in amusement,
“PLASTIC, BUT IT BROKE SO I COVERED IT IN TAPE!” I call back, this seems to confuse him more, annoy Pan, and entertain Henry. “DO YOU GUYS NOT KNOW WHAT PLASTIC OR TAPE IS?”
“YES WE DO!” Came the very fast, very angry, very chorused yell from the both of them, I hear Henry giggle as I bite my bottom lip and smile at the stubbornness of these (now very obviously), teenage boys.
Some more chatting ensues, then there some shredding sounds. I immediately get slightly worried about the clothes that I have in my backpack.
“OKAY ASTARA, WE’VE SHREDDED MY SHIRT AND FELIX’S CLOAK TO MAKE A PAIR OF GLOVES FOR HIM TO USE WHILE CARVING A HOLE INTO THE BUSH! ANYTHING WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT?”
“NOT UNLESS YOU’RE SCARED OF FLOWERS!”
“OH! I’M RIGHTFULLY TERRIFIED NOW!” Felix (even if I don’t think they’re doing this outta the goodness of their hearts, it’s nice to know their names) calls back sarcastically, I let a small laugh bubble out, then try to stop it with my hand and just wind up hurting myself more as the brambles dig into my wrists, forearms, elbows, biceps, and shoulders more.
As the small tears of pain leak down my cheeks, I hear Felix start to hack at the brambles. I settle deeper into the mold, mildew, and dirt, staring at the ruffled flowers on my chest as they rise and fall in time with my breathing. I relax like that for a while until I can stop the tears and the darkness starts to turn to the dimness.
I turn and watch as a towering figure that must be Felix slowly become visible as more of the vines are cut free and dropped, I wiggle and squirm as much as I can, knocking more dirt loose, upsetting more foliage, and hopefully revealing some of the vines that hold me in place.
After about two hours (not including breaks, everyone needs those) Felix pulls the last of the vines down, the sun putting a halo around his head and body and effectively blinding me as I squirm there.
“Henry mentioned that you said you were impaled?” Felix asks I nod my head, my face too scrunched up from the light to properly speak. He makes a noise that could pass for a soft (and highly unused) laugh, then he gently begins to feel my arm. He quickly cuts away the vines, then starts to cut a path down to my legs.
I hesitantly move my arm, feeling thorns still embedded in my skin, but Felix got all of the vines off me. I breathe slowly and gently grab the rest of the foliage on my chest, but it slides through my fingers, lifts itself off me, and throws itself on the ground. A golden hand wraps itself around my pale one as the dirt shakes itself off me like an earthquake is going on.
“Hey, don’t move just quite yet, this is Dreamshade, love, this is deadly,” Pan tells me, I let out a deep breath, “By the gods, is this wrapped around your chest too? How long have you been like this?”
“This should be impossible.” He mumbles under his breath, I try to look at him, but all I see is a halo and a shadow, I squeeze his hand and hiss as one of the vines tighten.
“Sorry, sorry,-” Felix worries,
“Felix, be careful!” Pan hisses,
“It’s okay! Just caught me off guard, I’m fine, it’s fine, Felix, you’re doing great.” I babble hurriedly, two smaller hands quickly tangle themselves in my hair. “Henry, I’m fine, really, it just hit that I’m finally about to be able to walk, maybe climb a tree, - a bath, however, is definitely coming first.”
“Probably a good idea,” Henry says, uprooting something in my hair, he pauses to show me the flower, then throws it behind him casually. I snicker quietly at him, Felix gently grabs my wrist, and I relax in order to let him move my arm easier, he simply pulls it to his chest and starts to carefully cut at the Dreamshade on my torso. “I’m surprised you’re not freaking out Astara, even though I’m only ten, I can tell Pan’s a pretty cute fifteen-year-old and he’s shirtless-”
“Wow, haven’t even properly seen me yet and you’re trying to set me up.” My voice comes out a few pitches higher than normal and much faster than usual as Pan yells wordless and Felix almost stabs me while letting out a loud laugh.
“I’M JUST SAYING!” Henry cries out indignantly, Felix almost collapses and dies of guffaws right there, I can sense Pan fuming, and I’m pretty sure my face is scarlet. “Besides, I can see you properly, you kinda look like my mom and grandma mixed together…with a lot of dirt.”
“Obviously with a lot of dirt,” I grumble, but take the compliment by dropping Pan’s hand and gently brushing my dirt- and blood-covered knuckles across Henry’s cheek before dropping my hand back into Pan’s grip. Pan jumps slightly in surprise, causing Felix to keep giggling as he cautiously pulls the vines out of my chest and stomach.
“This last vine I’m not letting you get, Felix.”
“And why not?” Felix’s voice darkens slightly, but his body language screams ‘worried’ at the top of its lungs.
“Well, unless you want to go ferreting under my breasts-”
“All yours.” Felix quickly shoves my machete into my hands as Pan snickers and Henry giggles at us. “Pan, would you please-”
“‘Course.” Pan and Felix leave and Henry turns around as I quickly cut the vine off and gently pull it out of me, having to hold my breasts practically on my throat to do so. I quickly pull the thorns out from under my breasts also, hissing curses so foul, I’m surprised the sky didn’t become bluer.
“i’M rIgHt HeRe!” Henry wails in horror, Felix and Pan, however, are begrudgingly complimenting me.
“Sorry, Hen-SON OF A-” My wrist brushes something tender that throws lightning curveballs through both my right breast and that side of my chest. I grab that area and curl up on that side of my body as two obvious thumps combined with two distinct laughs tells me all I need to know about Pan and Felix’s reactions (both of which are dying of laughter.) Henry’s small hands gently grab onto my face, I gently uncurl one hand and pat his shoulder, “Just a thorn, buddy, I’m fine. I’m totally fine.”
“Are you sure?” Henry worries,
“If she can curse that well, I’d say she’s bloody great!” Pan laughs out before I answer,
“Henry, will you please clock Pan upside the head for me? I’m ashamed that I said that while you were in earshot.”
“But were you ashamed of saying it?” Felix attempts to control his laughter, then lets out something that sounds an awful lot like a giggle and collapses on the ground with a wild bark of entertainment.
I turn red, Henry twists around to glare at Felix, I take the opportunity to grip what little of the thorn is left out of my skin and yank it out, exhaling deeply and (thankfully) wordlessly this time. I quickly throw it into the bush curling my knees up as I start to push myself up, Henry immediately starts protesting. “Hey hey hey, are you sure you should be sitting up? You’re oozing a lot of blood and-”
“And I’ll be fine-HEY!” Muscular arms wrap around me, and I’m lifted above Henry’s head before being settled into a clothed chest. I huff at Felix as my hair strings out behind me, longer, heavier, and darker than I remember, but about what I expected. He smirks as Pan comes up behind us, a bundle of rags in a ball in one arm, and my backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Henry, think you can carry her machete?” Pan asks,
“I’m fine with walking,” I grumble under my breath, Felix lets out that soft might-be-a-laugh noise as Henry fetches my machete, and then we turn to a dark treeline and vanish into it.