“Be right back,” said Prue, rolling her eyes.
As she’d witnessed from her bedroom, the wind outside had picked up considerably. The temperature felt like it had plummeted several degrees, and Prue was back to experimenting with different, more efficient ways of wrapping her scarf around her neck. None of the options seemed to block out the chill satisfactorily, so she found herself just knotting the massive knitted thing at her chin and shoving her hands deep into her coat pockets. The Indian take-out place was eight blocks away, but the distance felt unfathomable with the brittle wind and frozen drizzle beginning to descend from the sky. Prue guessed it to be only six thirty, and yet the dark was everywhere. She eyed the underbrush warily as she walked, searching for movement. Pausing for a moment at an intersection, she focused her listening at a line of oaks to gauge their thoughts. The sound she heard was not unlike the noise made by a colony of bees, if you were to catch them in a sympathetic mood and swimming in a large, thick puddle of mud. It came in lazy waves. For whatever reason, it inspired in her the necessary confidence to continue on her errand. But it occurred to her then: Had the Scotch broom screaming been a warning? But a warning of what? The fox?
A crack from above. Prue jerked her head upward. A tree bough, weighted with what little heavy snow remained, had broken from its trunk and fallen into the branches below. The tree gave an audible groan. An electricity radiated through Prue’s limbs from the surprise, though, and it took another half block of walking before she was able to shake it.
A pitch darkness preceded her. The streetlamps lining the last few blocks between her and the restaurant (she could see the warm, lit windows in the distance) appeared to not be working. Pausing momentarily, she took a deep breath and stepped into the veil of shadow. And that was when the trees started screaming.
Prue’s heart leapt. Instinctively, she began running in the direction of the restaurant. Something had crashed through the low bushes of a vacant lot and was now running after her; she could hear panting and frantic footsteps. The thing barked at her angrily—though she did not allow herself to look back to identify her pursuer; she kept her eyes on the safety of the restaurant’s lit windows. The trees were still hollering at full throat, and their voices kettled in her mind like barely containable steam. The sound overpowered her thoughts, like it had at the bluff, and it was all Prue could do to maintain consciousness. The trees, if they were trying to safeguard her, were unaware of the power and presence of their voices.
She flagged; she fell.
The thing was on her in a flash.
It pinned her to the sidewalk; it was a black fox, its fur matted from the cold precipitation in the air. Its muzzle snapped at her face. It smelled of moldering leaves.
“Got you,” hissed the black fox. The voice was feminine, familiar.
“Ms.…,” Prue wheezed, her breathing hampered by the weight of the animal on her chest. “Ms. Thennis?”
The thing smiled, if it could be said that a fox can smile. “Please,” it said, its voice calm and insidious, “call me Darla.”
The trees were still screaming.
nbsp; “Sorry to have to do this to you, kiddo,” said the fox. “I’ll try to make it painless.”
Prue squeezed her eyes shut. The moment seemed to last for an eternity. She waited for the teeth to sink in, the claws to bite.
Just then, there came a terrific gust of wind. The trees quieted, as if surprised. A yell from above: “GAAAAAAH!” The weight was instantaneously lifted from Prue’s chest, and her breath came roaring back. Glancing over, she saw that the black fox had been knocked across the sidewalk. Gasping, she scrambled to her feet while the fox desperately tried to right herself.
“What was that?” cried the fox angrily. The words had scarcely left her snout, though, before another thing had descended from the sky and knocked her rolling out into the empty street. Prue, her hands on her chest, watched as two giant herons alighted on the sidewalk before her.
“Prue!” shouted a boy’s voice. It was Curtis, astride one of the large gray birds. Prue could not speak.
“Watch it!” called another voice. Prue looked over to see that it was Brendan. He, too, was mounted on one of the herons. “She’s coming back!”
The fox had pushed herself up and was about to make a running leap at Prue. Stumbling backward, she threw her arms up to cover her face and felt the full weight of the fox come down on her shoulder, knocking her sideways. A row of ivory-white teeth snapped noisily, just inches from her ear. As she fell, however, she managed to get a foot under the fox’s haunches and kicked hard; the fox yelped and tumbled away to the concrete.
“Run, Prue!” This came from Curtis. Prue glanced up at him—he was clinging to his heron’s neck as the bird launched itself aloft and dove toward the prostrate fox. Both of the bandits’ mounts pounced on the back of the fox while it was briefly incapacitated; the fox howled in pain as their claws dug in. Her energies renewed, the fox spun and struck Brendan’s flying mount hard across the beak. Prue pushed herself up and bolted down the darkened street. She could hear behind her the sound of the fox breaking away from the skirmish and giving chase.
Brendan swore; a bird squawked. Prue felt the fox growing closer. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to survive another attack. She felt something sharp digging into the fabric of her peacoat and screamed. And then her feet began to lift from the ground.
She looked up and saw that she was in the talons of one of the herons.
The bird was straining under the weight, and its wings were moving in long, powerful beats. Prue could see Curtis’s face just over the wing of the bird. The fox leapt and swiped at Prue but only caught the hem of her pant leg. The heron let out a loud, mournful call—a kind of gravelly howl—and Prue found her feet touching back down on the pavement.
“Come on, Maude!” shouted Curtis from the heron’s back.
Prue kept up the bird’s frantic pace, the soles of her Wellingtons smacking the pavement like a runner on a treadmill gone wild. She could only hope that the heron would have enough thrust to get into the air again. She glanced behind her and saw that the fox was close in pursuit. Just as it was about to leap, the other bird, with Brendan astride, appeared from the darkness and struck the fox hard against its rump, and it tumbled sideways. Prue’s feet once again left the ground, and the street below began to diminish. A brief tussle ensued between Brendan’s mount and the fox, but on seeing Prue’s escape, the bird gave the fox one final swipe across the snout and took to the sky. The fox howled, but the sound was soon lost as the two massive birds climbed above the treetops and disappeared into the low-hanging clouds.
Prue finally managed to speak. Her hands clasped tightly to the heron’s claws at her shoulder. “Where are you taking me?” She found she had to holler it above the whipping wind.