After our experience with preparing rabbit, gutting and cleaning the fish was quite straightforward, if a little messy.
We roasted them over a fire and picked the flesh off the bones. There were a lot of bones. It tasted like regular fish, thankfully. We now had a ready supply of food and water. We also had the chance to wash our clothes and ourselves.
The girls went first while the boys sat on the road pretending we couldn’t hear them splashing about. Images of naked girls kept invading my thoughts, so I got up and started practicing with the sword.
I was really regretting giving up my spike. It was light and easy to use—aim at the head, stab, stab, stab. With a sword, you have to know what you’re doing. All I had to go on were movies I’d seen, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t the best source of reliable info.
What I discovered very quickly was that even a short sword that feels quite light at first, will make your arm ache after a few minutes of swinging it around. I’d alway planned on getting into shape at some point, like we all do I guess, but never really needed to. The bus stop was down the road from where I lived, and my job involved me sitting around most of the time. It never occurred to me one day I’d be fighting monsters.
Maurice followed my lead and waved his spear about, while Dudley examined the passing clouds. What we needed was more muscle.
“How many pushups can you do?” I asked Maurice.
He shrugged. “Ten? Twenty?”
“Really? Have you tried recently?”
“No, but ten isn’t a lot, is it?”
“What about you?” I said to Dudley.
“I couldn’t say, off the top of my head. About the same, I expect.”
“Okay, then, let’s see.” Neither of them moved. “Fine, I’ll go first.”
I got into position and started. The first two were easy. Number three and four were a bit of a struggle, and number five was a battle. Six got me down, but there was no getting back up. I stood up, panting.
“Five.” I nodded at Maurice. “Your turn.”
Maurice put down his spear and got on the ground. He did three.
“That’s five,” he said.
“That was three. The last two, your knees were touching the ground. We’re going to have to get a lot fitter than this if we want to fight properly. There’s no point having decent weapons if they end up wrecking us more than whoever we’re fighting.”
“My turn,” said Dudley, sounding very confident.
He got in position. First pushup was okay. Second one, his whole body trembled, but he managed to get back up with elbows locked. He lowered his body to the ground for number three, and stopped.
“That’s two,” I said, in case he’d lost count.
“Wait,” he said.
We waited. And waited. Very slowly, his body rose back up, his whole body shaking like a washing machine on fast spin. He finally made it to three pushups, and then collapsed onto his face.
Next, we tried sit ups and we each did thirty, which sounds quite a lot, but they were much easier and we were probably cheating them. All our faces glowed with sweat and we were too out of breath to speak.
“What are you doing?” said Claire.
I don’t know how long Claire and Flossie had been watching us, but probably long enough for us to make fools of ourselves. Not that it mattered very much right then. The girls had finished washing and were holding their wet clothes. They had both wrapped themselves in blankets, which covered their middle, but left plenty of skin showing. Legs. Lots of legs.
“Aren’t you going to go wash up?” asked Claire.
I realised I had been stood there gawping. “Yes. Of course. Right. Bathtime for baby!” I had no idea what I was saying. Maurice and Dudley joined in, equally flummoxed.
“Absolutely. Time for scrubbing the old bod,” said Maurice.
“Wash wash wash,” added Dudley.
With all the running around and trying not to die it was easy to forget we were young men with hormones and stuff. The sight of the girls was a firm reminder. Very firm.
As we got to the river I said, “You know, I think the best way to wash our clothes is to keep them on.”
The other two agreed immediately.
“Two birds, one stone,” said Maurice.
“Brilliant idea,” added Dudley.
We waded into the water, all three of us relieved we would have a chance to let things ‘settle down’ before getting naked. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s probably for the best.
Once we had bathed and given the clothes a good rinse, we returned to the girls. They had hung up their clothes on branches to catch the sun and were lying on their backs, the blankets falling away here and there to reveal even more flesh.
“Damn,” I said, clutching my stomach. “I need the bathroom. I might be some time.” And I rushed off. I didn’t need the bathroom, although I did need to relieve myself. It didn’t take very long. Both times.
When I returned, Maurice and Dudley had needed the ‘bathroom’ too.
“They’ve been gone ages,” said Flossie, sounding concerned.
“What’s wrong with you guys?” said Claire. “You think the fish wasn’t cooked properly?”
“No, you two would be affected too, then,” I pointed out. “Just, er, nature taking its course,”
I hung up my clothes on the nearest branches and lay down feeling much more relaxed. Within a few seconds I had fallen asleep.
When I woke up, my right arm, shoulder and back all ached. My stomach was also cramped up. Pretty normal reaction to doing some exercise after years of doing none, but if it was like this now, by tomorrow morning I’d be crippled. It was late afternoon and the others were all dozing in the sun. I got to my feet and did some stretches, which helped a little, and then I woke the others up. No one felt like more walking, but a few choice swear words and a threat to leave them behind got them moving.
Our clothes had dried and we quickly got dressed and set off again. We decided to travel along the river bank rather than the road. We found various bushes and brambles covered in berries growing along the bank and picked loads of fruit. It was slower than the road, but we had a rolling buffet to keep us busy, which made things more interesting. And then it got a bit too interesting.
There was a roar from somewhere in the forest. It didn’t sound very close, but it did sound very terrifying. We rushed back onto the road. We heard the roar again, this time a little closer. We started jogging.
Ahead of us, the road continued to the horizon with no signs of buildings or people.
There was a noise like a tree falling over. Followed by more trees being ripped out of the ground and hurled into the air. We were so fixated on watching for any signs of a monster—not that I knew what to do if one did turn up—that we nearly missed the path leading north through the field.
It was two thin tracks divided by a mohawk of grass, like it had been made by a wagon. Far in the distance, there seemed to be something, but too far to make out what exactly. A building?
As we stood at the intersection wondering if it was worth diverting from our planned route to investigate, a crash followed by a lot of splashing made the decision for us. We sped down the track.