Chapter 12 – The Red Thickets
Major Wright rode along, despondently. The knowledge that it would be months before he saw Felina again wore heavy on his heart.
He could see a valley in the distance from his vantage point north of Fern. The Red Thickets, a patch of shrubbery lying to its northwest, caught his eye. It consisted of near impassable brush that would challenge both man and beast, but he had no intention of going that way. Instead he planned to stay on the road and turn west when he was well past it. An even darker mass lay left of the hedgerow. It appeared to be a forest, but he gave it no consideration.
Layers of pines, spruces, and firs populated the landscape. Opal made them stop whenever they encountered a grove of silver birches. Major Wright was familiar with these trees and paid them no notice. However, Opal and Tinder paused to admire their grace and beauty.
The Major led the two trolls at a leisurely pace. He appreciated Tinder and Opal’s respect for his desire for solitude. They only broke the silence to point out marvels of nature. They stopped long enough to investigate a willow drooping its limbs over the path, a brook tinkling a melody, and a collection of mushrooms hiding in the grass. The Major ignored what the other two considered natural wonders as if they were common occurrences.
He allowed a stop for lunch under the shade of a fir. Opal withdrew burlap sacks from her saddlebag and extracted portions of fruit and bread. The breeze brushed the major’s face, invigorating him, and lifting his mood. He put Felina out of his mind.
They reached the outskirts of the valley at noon and arrived at its end by the time the sun began to dip below the hills. He called for a halt, choosing a sunken hollow for a campsite.
“I’ll get the wood if you’ll cook the dinner,” said Tinder to Opal.
“Okay. But I hope you two won’t expect me to do all the cooking on this trip. This trollkin can scrap it with any man.
The Major chuckled.
“Here. Make yourself useful, Tinder.” She handed him three potatoes and a pocket knife. “Peel these.”
“I can cook,” said Tinder. “We used to take turns roasting our dinner at the mine. I was told my shish-ka-bob was the best in the pit.”
Opal pulled out a fired clay bowl fastened on a ceramic stick long enough to reach over the fire. She dumped a cup of flour in it and mixed it with a swig of water from her canteen. Rolling doughy nuggets, she said. “Drop those taters in here. We’ll let you shish-ka-bob all you want when it’s your turn. But don’t expect me to have any. I don’t eat meat.”
“Why not?” asked Tinder.
“All living creatures have feelings, don’t you know?” continued Opal. She helped herself to Tinder’s canteen and poured its contents into the stew.
“Have it your way. I’m not giving up my ham bone.”
“Animal hater,” said Opal.
Opal sparked the fire and warmed the bowls of potatoes and dumplings over the blaze. When finished, she rounded out the meal by serving apples and sweet cakes.
“Mighty fine grub,” said the Major.
Tinder burped his approval.
The major jumped to his feet and commanded “Put out that fire!” as a faint set of hooves approached from the rear.
Opal emptied her canteen on the coals. She was able to douse its flame but could not squelch the smoke.
“Hide, and don’t come out until I say it’s okay,” said the Major.
He advanced towards the road with the intention of questioning the visitor, at sword point if necessary. A culvert provided him the concealment he needed. The horseman looked as if he would pass without stopping. At the last minute, his stallion neighed, stood on its back legs, and nearly bucked him off. He snuffled, reined in his horse under control, and turned towards the cloud of ash being emitted into the atmosphere. He withdrew his sword from its scabbard and looked the Major’s way.
“Halt! Who goes there?” shouted the Major.
“Who is it that questions a soldier of the king’s army?” the stranger replied. “It’s you who should state your business first instead of ambushing me like a common hijacker.”
Major Wright assessed the rider’s uniform, and gave the man’s face a once over.
“Corporal Wilborn?” The Major stepped into view. “What brings you here?”
“Oh! Just who I was looking for. Felina sent me. I have news.” The man broke into a laugh.
“What is it, man?” commanded the Major. He was glad to see the corporal but this new development did not please him.
“There have been reports of a foreigner asking about your activities. This man seems to know something about Tinder and is asking questions about your route, where you propose to make stops, and details of you and Opal as Tinder’s companions.” The corporal returned the Major’s strict tone with the curtness distinctive of members of the military. He looked over the Major’s head. The senior officer followed the corporal’s eyes to see Tinder climb out of the gully alongside the Major.
“You follow orders real well, Tinder,” said Major Wright. “Did he say his name, Corporal?”
“Yes. He went by the name of Mr. Jonas. But we believe that to be an alias,” said the soldier. “He offered money for information on Tinder. Most of them told him to be off with himself, but we’re not sure if anyone cooperated with him. The intelligence we gathered leads us to believe that he does have sources in Fern. He knew of Tinder’s trip. Consider the coincidence of his arrival with your departure.”
Tinder looked concerned. The Major knew what the troll was thinking. He had the same fear.
“Can you describe him?” asked Major Wright.
“He is short, stocky, and muscle-bound,” said the Corporal. “He looks to be in his late thirties. Scars on his face and hands give the impression of one experienced in arms. Felina thought you ought to know.”
Tinder nodded in confirmation. “That’s him,” he said. “As if life wasn’t complicated enough.”
“Return a different way to throw him off our trail, Corporal. Head east. We’ll go west. I’ll make a detour he won’t want to follow.”
“Yes, sir,” said the corporal as he rode off.
“We can’t let the Bounty Hunter follow us,” said the major. “He’s too much of a risk. We’re daring the Red Thickets, so pack up. We’re moving out.”
This was met with groans from Tinder. The major knew the troll had looked forward to an uneventful night resting his bones. Opal, however, jumped up and clapped her hands. The Major remembered the excitement of his first campaign and envied her innocence.
Tinder winced when he saw the six-foot high wall of brush the Major aimed to lead them through. Dismounting, he guided his steed through the passage the soldier had chosen.
Tinder’s tough hide protected him from the thorns. However, they scratched the others, puncturing their britches and tearing their skin. The horses whinnied from the pain of quills lacerating their flanks. The Major stopped. “We have to leave our mounts here. I was afraid of this when we entered the Thickets. They will retrace our steps and find another way around.” The horses understood his words and turned back.
“When it comes to penetrating the impenetrable, let Tinder lead the way,” said the troll. “The pricklies are no match for my thick skin."
“The thickest part of you is not your skin,” said Opal. “It’s your head.”
“Opal, why don’t you get behind Tinder?” suggested the Major. “You’ll get stuck less if you’re in between us.”
Opal squeezed by the soldier.
“Thank you, Major. At least we have one gentleman on the journey.”
The troll experienced more pain than he let on. However, he wished to live up to his words.
A giant vine with branches six inches thick and three inch long thorns barred his way. Barbs cut his face and hands, as he rammed it with all his might and held the way open for Opal.
“Major! Tinder!” shouted Opal. “It’s got me. This plant is alive.”
Tinder looked behind him. Tentacles had wrapped themselves around the trollkin’s waist and legs, and were pulling her towards an opening formed from two man-sized leaves.
“It has a mouth,” cried Opal. “It’s trying to eat me.”
Tinder reacted first. He grabbed the tentacle around her waist and returned its tug with a yank of his own. The limb and the troll reached a standstill. However the bottom feeler proceeded to draw Opal in farther towards the cavity.
“It’s a Clamsnapper!” yelled the Major.
The plant’s bottom half surrounded Opal’s shins as it pulled the trollkin in. The snapper threatened to swallow her whole.
“The mouth, Tinder,” the soldier said. “The mouth. Open its mouth, and stand back.”
Tinder let loose his grasp on the tentacle and grabbed the two sides of the opening. It took all his strength to widen the gap and overcome the plants attempt to shut its jaws.
“Duck, Opal,” said the Major.
The trollkin bent her head down and bowed at the waist.
The Major plunged his sword into the meat of the plant’s maw and twisted it. The monster screeched, let loose of its grip and let her go.
Opal cried hysterically. “I spoke too soon,” she said. “You may have a thick head, Tinder. But sometimes you are very gallant.”
He was glad the trollkin couldn’t see him blush. The only response he could muster was an inaudible mumble.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, leaned her head on his shoulders, and sobbed. Tinder stiffened. He thought he saw a glimpse of longing in her glance as she released her hold and turned towards major. The soldier consoled the trollkin, leaving Tinder the feeling of inadequacy from his failure to comfort the trollkin. The troll chastised himself for not being better with the opposite sex, especially Opal.
“Do you think Porter will follow us?” asked Opal after she regained her composure.
“If that’s his plan, we’ve certainly left him a clear trail to follow,” replied the Major.
The outline of a forest in the form of pillars rising high in the sky became visible. “It looks like we might be seeing an end to this tangle pretty soon,” Tinder said. The bramble changed to tall wooden shoots that became trees so thick he could not walk between them in a straight line.
“I’m having a hard time keeping my bearings,” said the Major. “I need to be able to see the moon and the stars but the treetops block my view.” Only the faintest radiance diffused through the canopy. “I think I’m lost.”
The smell turned rancid. Fronds, lianas, and other vines slapped Tinder in the face. “This stuffiness is unbearable,” he said.
“There are eyes in the trees,” whispered Opal.
Tinder looked up. Green and brown orbs glowed back at him.
“Just keep walking as if they’re not even there,” said the Major. “Don’t show any fear.”
“Easier said than done,” muttered Tinder.
Mournful wails howled in the night. From high-pitched cries to low range growls, the echo of moaning filled Tinder’s ears. He shuddered, wondering what made the creatures sound so forlorn.
Tinder sensed the presence of a dark, brooding malice. Something seemed to monitor their progress the deeper they delved into the woodland. He could not identify its origin, but it felt evil.
“I don’t like this place,” said Opal. “There’s something wrong here, very wrong.”
Tinder agreed, but waited to hear the Major’s opinion first.
“I’m with you, Opal,” Major Wright said. “But I want to see it in daytime, assuming the sun ever shines here. I don’t want to abandon everything we’ve accomplished. We still have Porter on our heels.”
“He might be the lesser of two evils,” said Opal.
“Major Wright has far more experience in this type of affair than we have,” said Tinder. “I’m not sure we could find our way back anyhow.”
“I vote for retreating and following the horses,” said Opal. “But if everyone’s against me, I’ll go along with you guys. I’m sure not going back by myself.”
They progressed steadily through the rest of the night. Dawn presented a scene from a childhood fable. What had previously been the scrub of the Thickets had transformed into a tropical jungle. Several layers of flora formed above ground highways for animals to scamper across. Mutant monkeys, disfigured leopards, mottled lizards and a plethora of other various changelings gaped at the three travelers.
“Look at the animals now, Major," said Tinder. "Look how deformed they are."
“I was right,” said Opal. “We need to get out of here as fast as possible. There’s dark sorcery at work here or I’m not a witch. I can only hope it has no business with us. Let’s go back.”