29. Into The Woods

I entered the woods not giving a damn. Yes, danger lurked in every shadow, but so what? Danger lurked in every sunlit meadow, too. Five steps in, and my attitude started to change.

Unlike the last time I was here, this time I was much more aware of the surroundings. Without the disorienting confusion of finding myself in a strange world and the shock of seeing a real live ogre, I was able to appreciate the full dank grandeur of the forest. The scuffling going on behind shrubs, the scuttling around my feet, the dark shapes disappearing up tree trunks—it was all creepy as fuck.

“Hey, wait up!” called Maurice from behind me.

I turned and realised it would be easy to get lost in this place. If Maurice hadn’t been heading towards me, I wouldn’t have known which direction I had come from. I took out my spike and gouged a mark in the nearest tree trunk. We would have to leave some kind of trail to follow back.

The others congregated around my location and watched me carve an arrow into bark.

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to be in here?” asked Maurice, clearly implying it wasn’t.

“Probably not,” I answered. “What other option do we have? If we carry on as we are, we’re going to end up stuck in Probet forever. We need to take a chance and hope we get lucky. Or at least that’s what I intend to do.”

“Okay,” said Claire, “but can we not go all the way back to town if we have to run?”

“Sure. If someone says ‘Run’, then we go to the little stream we passed on the way up. If they yell, ‘Ruuuuuuuuuun’, that means big trouble, we go all the way back.”

They nodded their agreement.

“Okay, now the next thing, does anyone remember which way the clearing is?”

Nobody had a clue, so I turned to face the dark interior of the forest and set off. One direction seemed as good as any other.

We all chipped off bits of bark as we walked. Not that I thought it would make much difference if we got attacked. Once we were deep inside Mirkwood, any monster we encountered pretty much had dinner sorted. No matter how many marks we left, finding them as we ran in panic would be near impossible. It would only make it more likely for us to lose our footing or plough head first into a tree.

The sounds around us seemed to get louder, although I was probably just becoming more aware of them. Chittering from the branches above. Hissing from the undergrowth. The occasional hoot or caw. A struggle somewhere to the left, a branch breaking somewhere to the right.

I had my club and spike ready. Dudley and Maurice carried the sacks, which they had taken permanent ownership of rather than have the girls carry them, which was fine by me. Maurice had his metal rod which he used to beat the bark off trees. Dudley had Flossie’s knife. I don’t know when that arrangement was made, but it was a damn sight easier to carve arrows with that then his assigned weapon, the bola.

Flossie carried her sling, but I doubted she’d be able to swing it without hitting a tree or branch. Claire had her stick. If we did run into a monster, our main line of attack would be to hope it'd leave us alone out of pity.

The dim light made it hard to see very far through the trees. Nothing looked familiar or like it had been disturbed recently. You’d think twenty-plus people traipsing through the woods might leave signs of their passing, but apparently not. On the other hand, maybe I was taking us in completely the wrong direction.

I don’t know how much time had passed—hard to tell with the canopy hiding the sun—but I was just about ready to give up when I stumbled through some low branches into a wide open space.

The sun blinded me for a moment, but once I adjusted to the brightness I recognised the tall grass and wild flowers. It was the glade we had started in.

The others stopped beside me, taking in the idyllic scene. Perfect place for a picnic, if it wasn’t for the smell. The unmistakable odour of shit.

When the ogre died, it emptied its bowels in violent fashion. You don’t forget a smell like that, and the air was still heavy with it. The ogre’s body had gone. Perhaps it had been eaten by scavengers, or maybe it had risen from the dead and we now faced the possibility of attack from a zombie ogre. A zogre?

We moved around, trying to spot anything unusual but nothing stood out. Where had we come from? Had we fallen out of the sky? I’m not sure what I hoped to find. A magic wardrobe that led back home would have been nice. Not that I had much to go home to. No loved ones distressed by my sudden disappearance, no luxurious lifestyle to reclaim.

To be honest, the idea of travelling to a strange fantasy world to fight monsters and find treasure would be the kind of thing I would love to do, but not like this. If I had landed with special skills and an OP weapon, cheat mode on, fair enough, I’m down to play. But trying to navigate this place as the lowliest scrub with a stick in one hand and a metal spike in the other was way too hardcore.

“Shit!” cried out Maurice.

“What is it?” I looked around for signs of trouble.

“No, it’s shit. Lot’s of it.”

I walked over to him and saw the shit he was talking about. A large area was covered with a light brown crust. It had been a lot darker when it shot out of the ogre’s rear end, but being baked by the sun had turned it to the colour of fresh bread. It had also expanded so it was high as my knee. A giant turd muffin.

“Ah,” said Flossie, “is it supposed to move like that?” She pointed at the area nearest her which was trembling. A bubble began to form.

“It’s probably the sun warming up the gas inside. We should probably get back,” I said. I don’t consider myself an expert in these matters, but it seemed a plausible explanation.

We all stepped back as the bubble grew bigger and bigger. It reached beachball proportions and then it popped, and a rabbit jumped out.

It looked like the rabbits we hunted, except for one thing: the long horn growing out of the centre of its head.

“Fooking hell,” said Flossie. “It’s a bunny unicorn!”

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