“Katelyn, d-do you think they are p-poison?” Arabella asked me. Her voice sounded hoarse, the cold air sending small puffs of mist from her lips. Next to her, little Gregory bounced on his feet, the possibility of food giving the boy a sudden burst of energy. It was our third day alone in the Whispering Forest, our third day without food. The waterskin I had stolen from Father was almost empty, and dusk was fast approaching.
“I don’t know,” I answered. The bushy plant stood two paces high and held many clusters of berries. I pulled one from the clump. It was a juicy, deep crimson. A quick glance at Gregory revealed a string of saliva hanging from his chin, just above the sickening bruises where Father had strangled him.
“What if it’s baneberry?” Arabella questioned, her brown eyes both panicked and hopeful.
“No,” I answered, “baneberry has pointed leaves. I used to pick them for Mother when she had an ache in her belly.” One or two baneberries could remedy a stomach cramp. Six or more could stop your heart.
A sob escaped Arabella’s throat. She clutched my arm. “I miss her,” she murmured, and I immediately cursed myself for mentioning Mother. My little sister was only eight years old, and Gregory six. Our perilous escape into the Whispering Forest was wearing heavily upon them. I could see it in the hollows of their eyes, the sag of their shoulders. “As do I, little dove, every day,” I said softly, my mind wandering to Mother’s passing. It still held a great weight on us. She was the one who had held our family together, who made life in the Whispering Forest bearable. After her freakish death everything changed. Our world grew darker, the forest more threatening. But Father, Father had changed the most. In my mind I could still hear his scream as he strangled little Gregory, shaking him until the tips of his toes scraped the wooden floor of our cabin. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” He had yelled at my baby brother. “Don’t you shut that damn door!” I remembered turning and seeing the cabin door closed and latched. Why shouldn’t the door be closed? I wondered, legs trembling, as Gregory let out a muffled yelp. His brown eyes pleaded for help, the skin on his face darkening as he struggled for breath. I picked Father’s sword off the dinner table. It felt so heavy in my hands. I walked to them…
Arabella’s sudden scream broke me from the spell of old memories. I spun and saw her lunge forward and swipe at Gregory’s face. But it was too late. Little Gregory smiled, his lips and teeth streaked red from the juice of the unknown berries.
“What are you doing?” I shouted, reaching out and slapping at his hands. He stepped backward, dropped the clump of berries to the forest floor, and started to cry. His face was chapped and the streaks of fresh tears made his pink cheeks glisten. I went to him, pulled him close. “How do you feel?” I said, trying to sound calm. “Tell me.”
He sniffled, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his deerskin. “I’m good,” he said. “It feels warm.” He patted his belly. I waited a moment, observing, yet saw no signs of sickness or poison.
While I was concentrating on Gregory, Arabella had wandered off a few paces ahead. “Katelyn,” she called out, “come see what I’ve found!” I guided Gregory through thick brush and found Arabella beside more berry bushes. Further beyond, a group of young saplings grew bunched together. Their bark looked sickened, taken with a fungus, yet as I drew closer I saw the smooth bark had in fact been painted on from the red juice of the nearby berries. Images of flowers and butterflies, of knights and dragons, wrapped themselves around the young trees like a child’s totems.
“Other people have been here!” Gregory shouted.
“And look,” I said, pointing to the nearby berries. “They’ve been picked from.”
“That means we can eat!” my sister said.
“Yes, I believe so.” Yet I wondered for a moment if the berries had been picked, not to eat, but only to decorate the saplings. Although I did not believe so—for what children would want poison on their fingers? And Gregory, he had shown no ill effects from the berries he had eaten, so we immediately began pulling clusters from the bush. I put three in my mouth and bit down. They were delicious and sweet. I felt a comforting warmth spreading in my belly, as if drinking from a glass of wine.
Once my stomach was full I spent a long moment enjoying my brother and sister. No longer hungry, their fingertips dipped into the berry juice and became crimson quills, creating the edges of a broadsword on an unmarked sapling. The sun had fallen lower, and the forest shadows grew long and thin. I closed my eyes, breathed in the cold air, and heard the sound of a giggling child.
I sprung to my feet.