The giant spider lay on its back, its legs curled up and crunchy, the way only a burnt-to-a crisp spider can. The horse’s rear end was sticking out of the spider’s maw, the arsehole staring right at me. I didn’t like the way it kept following me when I moved. The whole thing was horrifying.
“What if it explodes and thousands of baby spiders come out?” said Maurice. Now it was even more horrifying.
Joshaya had wrapped up his arsenal of weapons and slung them over his back. He had various straps he used to attach the package to his waist and shoulders. Even though he was far from a young man, he had the look of a tried and tested warrior off to find his next great battle. We had the look of three English kids messing about in the woods hoping to find an old bag of abandoned porn.
“You did well,” said Joshaya, surveying the scene. His eyes went from the dead spider, still smoking, to the web. It was easier to see now, its strands no longer invisible since it had been doused in flames. “I wouldn’t have thought to use fire, might have burned down the whole forest.”
He didn’t say it like a criticism, but I know passive-aggressive when I hear it.
“What are the other guardians like?” I asked him.
“I do not know,” said Joshaya. “There is little information on them other than them being denizens of the forest and of huge size. They will kill us the first chance they get so we need to be wary.”
“What was that?” I said, annoyed.
“What?” said Joshaya, bewildered.
“I ask what do you know, you say nothing, and then give me a list of the things I just asked you for.”
“No, I didn’t,” said Joshaya. “I barely gave you a hint of what’s to come, for that is all I have to give.”
“What about the castle?” said Maurice. “What can you tell us about it?”
“Nothing,” said Joshaya. “Save that it is four turrets joined by stone walls. It sits inside a moat filled with deadly creatures and—”
“You’re doing it again!” I said, preventing him telling us what else he knew about the castle but honestly, he was irritating the shit out of me.
“We must go,” said Joshaya, like it wasn’t him we were waiting for.
“Okay. You take point.”
He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language.
“You go first since you’re the best at spotting the enemy. Your knowledge of the forest and of what’s in there makes you the ideal point guy.”
“But I don’t—”
“Yes, yes, you know nothing. That’s still twice as much as us. Maurice go second, I’ll go third and Dudley’ll bring up the rear.”
They all gave me questioning looks.
“Dudley’s at the back because he needs distance to shoot stuff with his bow. I’m behind Maurice because he’s bound to be writing shit down and not looking where he’s going, so I need to tell him to watch his step when he’s about to fall down a hole. The big guy is obviously best at hitting things so he gets to be the leader.”
They all gave me a nod as though they understood now. Like fuck they did.
The big guy was up front because he was a nice big meat shield. Dudley was at the back because meat shields work for rear attacks, too. Maurice was in front of me because when the front shield got taken out, the enemy would be moving towards us and we’d be moving towards them, closing the gap. I’d need a buffer. Whereas, when the rear shield got taken we’d be moving away from the attacker so I’d have the natural buffer of already moving away.
“Is he really going to be able to handle the monsters in there?” asked Maurice out of the side of his mouth.
There was nothing wrong with Joshaya’s hearing. “My waist may be bigger than it used to be,” he bellowed, “but that just means I can fit more daggers on my belt.”
He did have numerous daggers lined along his belt like silver teeth, although some couldn’t be seen under his massive gut. Not that I expected much fighting. Like with the spider, our best attack was using our environment to our advantage. No, it wasn’t just luck, it was a well-worked improvised attack that required quick thinking and super-fast reflexes. The flying horse and flammable liquid were just the craftsman’s tools.
We all approached the web which was still blocking our way forward. Beyond was a lush and verdant forest, more like a jungle. Late morning sunlight slanted through the leafy branches and twisted trunks of ancient trees.
Maurice threw a stone at the web and it bounced off. He touched it with a gloved hand and was able to let go without becoming stuck.
“Seems to have lost its adhesive properties,” he said.
We all began to touch, pat and prod the threads. They were still too dense to get past but at least they wouldn’t hold us in place for monsters to feed on. There was more than the spider to worry about. Including other spiders. I looked back, just in case what Maurice had suggested came true and spiders swarmed out of the corpse.
“Right, let’s try old Bessie.” Joshaya took out a curved sword that glinted like a mirror. He raised it over his head and brought it down on the webbing. It bounced off and flew out of Joshaya’s hands and over his head, landing point first in the spider’s abdomen. I held my breath, waiting for the baby spiders to jump out. Nothing happened.
“Couldn’t we try fire again?” asked Dudley, his hesitant tone suggesting even he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“We could climb it,” I said.
Everyone looked up. The trees were very tall and the web went all the way to the top, and then over them. There was no telling how far they went but we would be able to climb down at some point, presumably.
“What about going round the side?” said Joshaya, the least keen on the climb. His extra girth wouldn’t help him in the vertical direction. “It can only go so far.”
The treeline didn’t stretch out on either side, though. It curved, so the web could be sitting on it like a hairnet. We could have at least had a look if we still had the horse and cart, but they were no longer in commission. That brown eye was still watching me.
“It’ll take too long,” I said, grabbing the web with my fingers and inserting them through the gaps. The issue wouldn’t be the climb—there were plenty of holds as the whole things was structured like a mosaic of ladders—it was whether the spider’s silk would cut through our hands and feet. It was incredibly sturdy and fine as wire.
I cautiously tried my luck, carefully poking the toe of my shoes in between strands and climbing up. It was actually easier than expected. The way the strands were joined meant there was something to hold wherever you looked. Didn’t matter your height or reach. It was the perfect climbing structure. Within a few minutes I was near the top, feeling perfectly secure.
When I looked down, I realised no one was following. They had decided to see if I would fall to my death first, which was wise thinking. At least they had learned something from me.
Once I got to the top, it became a bit more precarious. The web covered the first tree and ended. I was sitting on top of the world, more treetops ahead of me like an endless field of green, and in the distance were four towers. Mission almost accomplished.
“Hey, it’s fine. Come up,” I shouted over my shoulder. Now I just had to find a way down.
The other three clambered up, even Joshaya with his large backpack. They stopped when they reached me and took in the view.
“That’s the castle,” said Joshaya, all informative now that we didn’t need his worldly wisdom.
“Are you sure?” I asked him pointedly. My sarcasm went flying over his head.
“No. It could be the wrong castle.”
“Oh, was there more than one castle built here?”
“I don’t know,” said Joshaya. “Maybe.”
Getting down wasn’t too bad for about three-quarters of the journey. Then the branches thinned out and we were faced with a smooth trunk and a long fall.
“I believe I see some vines we could climb down over there,” said Dudley, pointing into the gloomy distance.
“Good eyes, lad,” said Joshaya. He took off his pack and let it drop. It landed with a distant thud. “That should be fine there for now.”
Branches from neighbouring trees overlapped and we were able to shimmy across from tree to tree until we reached one with long vines trailing to the ground. It wasn’t clear what they were attached to.
Joshaya straddled a large branch and twisted a vine around himself so it formed a belt around his waist. “Right you are. Who’s first?”
As leader, I nominated Dudley. If it could take his weight, the rest of us should be fine. How Joshaya planned to make his way down after us, I had no idea.
Dudley slid down with plenty of oohs and ahs and ‘I say, that chafes.” He made it without falling to his death, which was the main thing.
I went next and then Maurice, all without incident. Then Joshaya stood up on the branch so the vine fell off him like baggy trousers. He made a loop which he hooked around his ankle and jumped head first.
His head-first dive didn’t seem to have any possible outcome other than his death. As he approached the ground which we had very quickly vacated, the vine went taut, then snapped. The momentary pause slowed his descent, and then he fell the last couple of metres to land in a heap.
“There we are, now.” He brushed himself off. His face was beetroot red, I assume from all the blood having been forced into his face by momentum. “Reminds me of the old days. Just need a sit down.”
He collapsed backwards and landed on his bum, his back against the tree. He did in fact only need a bit of a sit down before he was back up and raring to go. He put the three of us much younger men to shame. But then so did everyone else. We were very shame-friendly.
The first thing we did was find his backpack, which was exactly where we expected it to be.
“Still here, then,” I said. “Thought a giant squirrel might have pinched it.”
“I hope the next guardian isn’t a giant squirrel. Those things can be quite vicious.” Dudley seemed genuinely perturbed by the idea.
“I’m hoping for a giant snail,” said Maurice. “Nice and slow.”
“Yes,” said Dudley. “And delicious.”
As two city boys, our reactions were the appropriate ones.
“What’s wrong with you posh people?”
“The boy’s right,” said Joshaya. “Excellent peasant food, the people’s oyster, if you know how to prepare them properly. Very salty, if you don’t rinse them well. Slips right down the throat.”
“Not if it’s the size of a house,” I said. “Which way?”
“Follow me.” Joshaya pulled on his pack and headed into the jungle like he knew exactly where to go. If he was bluffing, I was all for it. The last thing I needed was more doubt in my life.
We were unmolested for the most part. Some insects buzzed about but we saw no other animals, of any size. There were ponds of water and some berries which kept us going through the day. Joshaya insisted he had never seen these varieties before but somehow knew which were poisonous and which weren’t. His false modesty was grating.
The best part of a jungle, I’d say, is the abundant toilet facilities. Shit where you like and plenty of large leaves to wipe yourself. At least when you live in a fantasy world, you get to relieve yourself in lots of new and interesting places.
Judging by what I’d seen from high up, the castle wasn’t super far. It would have taken a couple of hours across an empty field. But our path was densely populated with all sorts of obstructing vegetation.
We stopped for a break, covered in a slick of sweat and uncomfortable in our clothes. You couldn’t keep still, you had to wriggle where you stood.
“Is it much further?” I asked.
“Can’t say. Could be. Or maybe—”
“Fine. Forget I asked.” His ability to use polite conversation as a vicious weapon was impressive.
“Um, what?” said Dudley.
I turned to him, and then to where he was looking. There was nothing there. Which was strange because Joshaya had been right there a moment ago.
“Where’d he go?”
Dudley’s mouth was opening and closing but no words came out. I gave him a kick in the butt to knock him out of whatever loop he’d got stuck in.
“The jungle… it came alive and… took him.”
I felt like kicking him again, but what he said might literally be true. “Where?”
He pointed at nothing. I looked closer and realised Joshaya was standing right in front of me, wrapped in leaves and bark and other organic materials so that he was indistinguishable from his surroundings.
I slowly reached out a hand to touch his bindings.
“Ahem,” said a voice. I looked around but there was no one there apart from the other two.
“Yes?” I said. “Hello?”
Two eyes opened in the trunk of the tree next to me. Then a mouth.
“This is the end of your journey.” It was a fairly neutral voice, soft and soothing. Could have been male or female.
“Are you the guardian of the forest?” I asked.
“We are the forest,” it said. “The Guardian of the Green.”
Joshaya’s body moved a bit, shaking and all of a tremble. I peeled off the leaf covering where his mouth should have been.
“Ah, yes,” he said after spitting out some twigs. “The Guardian of the Green. The third guardian."
I felt like shoving a bunch of leaves in his gob. “So you knew, then? Didn’t think it worth mentioning.”
“Only rumours, hearsay. I wouldn’t want to speak without certainty.”
I turned back to the tree. “We’re a bit lost. Can you direct us to the castle? Big stone thing with four towers?”
“We are here to prevent you reaching the castle of the One True God, not aid you.”
“What if we give you this one?” I pointed at Joshaya. “In trade for safe passage.”
“What would we do with him?”
I shrugged. “Use him for fertiliser?”
“No. You will go no further. We cannot allow it.”
“You keep saying ‘we’. Where’s everyone else?”
In answer more eyes opened. “We are one under the soil,” they said together, which had a weird echoing effect.
“Do you think,” I began, my eyes looking for the best escape route, “we could delay this until we meet the second guardian? Only it plays hell with my OCD to do this out of order.”
There was a hesitant pause, whispering under the soil, perhaps. I kept looking for a way out. Not easy when you’re trying to run from a whole forest from the inside. I’ve seen The Evil Dead. I know what trees can do.
“Very well. After the second guardian. If you survive.”
It wasn’t exactly a plan, more of a delaying tactic. But the longer you spend not dead, the more time you have to figure out a way to stay alive. It makes sense, trust me. And you never know, we might stumble onto a magic twig or save a cute sapling, get the forest to owe us one.
The leaves and mud covering Joshaya crumbled and fell off him. He shook himself like a wet dog to get rid of whatever was left. He looked like a real forest man. He blended right in.
The tree trunk eyes closed around us and it was like they’d never been there, but it felt very different now. Like we were under close observation. We moved on.
“To encounter the Green,” said Joshaya. “It’s quite an honour. And to survive! Well, well.”
I ignored him as best I could. Which wasn’t easy when he spent most of his time under my skin.
After an hour of tramping through the jungle, Joshaya suddenly fell on the ground. He didn’t trip, he dived. We all followed suit.
“What?” I whispered.
“Second guardian,” he whispered and pointed.
I crawled forward and peeked through the underbrush. Up ahead was a pond. Actually, more like a lake. In the middle of it sat a huge frog. It was enormous, much bigger than the spider. And around it, swimming about were frog people.
I stood up.
“Get down, you fool,” Joshaya hissed at me.
“Hey!” I called out. The frogmen stopped to look in my direction, including one smoking a pipe. “Hey, Nabbo! Got any weed?”