“Run For It”
Since fifteen they’d done runs through the Hooton Forest without anything so much as the typical ambush by bandits as brave as them to venture through the forest. The forest was the only way from the hamlets in Norfaulk to city of Shunsta. The quickest way. Many couriers tended to go around Hooton, though. The bedtime stories of goblins and ogres nesting in the forest turned most travelers to the longer route around the forest, adding weeks to any journey.
But not Gauk and Gabby. They told those stories to their competitors to scare them, to make them think twice about using the trails through Hooton. Good for business.
The brother and sister pair had played in Hooton since before they could walk. As trackers who made their living off pelts and furs from the animals among Hooton’s thick trunks and deep within its caves, the siblings’ parents had shown them how to travel the deer runs. Taught them about the herbs and berries to heal and fill their bellies. When they were old enough, the siblings hired out their knowledge to anyone needing quick passage through Hooton to Shunsta or who needed a parcel delivered yesterday.
They never once encountered the monsters whispered to children as warnings about getting lost in Hooton. So the forest held no fear, only play.
An urgent shaking woke Gauk in the middle of the night. The light breaking through the boughs of the tree canopy above was a twilight blue-purple bruise. He’d only slept a couple hours then, at most. It was still night.
He groaned and shoved away the hand jostling his arm.
“Too early,” he said groggily, not attempting to fight a yawn. “Sunrise. Wake. Me. At…”
Before Gauk could slip the heavy quilt of sleep over his mind, muffling the world around him, someone shook him once more. More vigorously.
“Too early to die, huh?”
“What are you talking…”
Someone hauled Gauk out of his bedroll to sit up. That someone was Gabby. Through sleep crusted eyes he witnessed his sister rummaging around the camp, packing their gear, stopping only briefly to assess whether a pot, a blanket, or a tin cup was worth stowing. She left much behind.
“Answer me, dear brother,” Gabby said with little attention for her brother. “Is it too early to die?”
Suddenly the ground shook. No… the whole world shifted underneath Gauk. The trees around the small clearing his sister and he had secured the night before shook, leaves trembling, bark groaning as tree trunks bent with the quake.
“We need to get going. Now!” Gabby insisted. “You know all those stories da used to scare us with?”
Gauk nodded once, rubbing his eyes.
His sister was hunkered down not far from him, over her own sleeping space, breaking down and rolling up her own bedroll. At feeling the quake her fingers began to shake. They fumbled with the ties and knots.
Another one of those quakes shook the clearing, hard enough to wake the world.
Repeating himself, Gauk asked his sister, “Sis, what’s happening?”
Gabby wheeled around on her heal and stared over the campfire at her brother while still in a crouch. The fire gave her brown skin a preternatural glow that frightened Gauk. “Da’s stories. They’re real. I heard something. Scouted. What I saw…
“What?” he asked in a hushed tone.
She shook her head. “You really don’t wanna know. Just… just pack. Let’s move.”
Laughing and slapping his knee, Gauk wiped tears from his eyes while propping himself up on an elbow.
“You don’t believe me?” Gabby stopped securing her blankets and pointed to somewhere behind Gauk.
Just when Gauk was about to roll back over to sleep, a roar tore through the forest. A roar like nothing Gauk had ever heard. Like trees being ripped up from the roots. Boulders tumbling down a mountain side. He could feel the rage and desperation in his pelvis.
No time for I told you so’s, Gabby furiously packed the remaining gear she couldn’t leave behind. She rose and slung their satchel of letters and a bundle of goods for trade in Shunsta over each of her shoulders.
Gauk kicked off his blankets and pulled on his boots, lacing them up with numb fingers. He buckled on his leather breastplate next, then his belt with the long knife at the side that had been his father’s before his. He pulled his cloak over his shoulders.
Bending down, Gauk thought to roll his blankets.
“Leave it off,” Gabby said, already jogging to the edge of the clearing, to the opposite direction of the roar.
The ground trembled deeper now. The intervals between the pounding closing together.
Gauk dropped his blankets and rose to his feet, facing his fleeing sister.
Trees behind him snapped, screaming with torn bark, broken wood. Leaves poured from overhead as branches fell all around Gauk, snuffing out the campfire, forcing Gauk to his knees, his arms held overhead to protect himself. Two trees fell on either side of him, kicking up dust.
Head snapping up, Gauk saw his father’s tales come to life in the form a brutish monster. An ogre. A cave monster who lived in the deepest part of Hooton, in deepest dark of caves where no light touched. If his father’s stories were to be believed. Its alabaster skin shone in the moonlight pouring into the clearing from the newly made hole in the canopy,where the two trees had stood tall. Angry welts dyed its hands, neck, and mouth with crimson. Or was that the blood of a poor animal? Its flattened nose sniffed the air, searching for the silent siblings who took care not to move. Not to utter a sound. As it turned its head–much too large for its equally massive girth–Gauk saw its eyes too were milky stones that drank the light of the moon, sightless. No wonder in the stories the things always stayed in caves only to come out at night…
If we stay here longer, Gauk mused frantically, his mind racing, the thing will find us.
Not far away Gauk felt the heat of what remained of their campfire. Turning his head slowly Gauk saw some of the sticks in the firepit still held embers. The ogre couldn’t see. But Gauk bet the thing could feel heat!
Gauk made a decision.
He scrambled to his feet, ran to the campfire, and took up one of the still blazing sticks.
He shouted to Gabby with desperate intensity. “Get going! Don’t argue!” He couldn’t see his sister’s face in the dark but he knew she was probably crying.
Any protests his sister might have had were cut off by the ogre’s roar.
Over his shoulder Gauk saw the thing’s jaw stretch impossibly wide, large enough for a man to crouch inside before getting crunched by dozens of teeth sharp as swords. Saliva dripped down its warty red chin like thick ropes.
Gauk waved his torch high over head. “Over here you stupid piece of shit! C’mon!”
Then the brute hunched over, slapped the ground with its boulder sized hands, and lept toward Gauk, scattering the remains of the siblings’ camp.
Gauk pointed himself away from the edge of the clearing, in the opposite direction of his sister, and ran for his life. All the while he flailed his flaming stick overhead like a mace he meant to crack open a skull with. Gauk could feel the heat of the ogre’ putrid breath as the thing closed the distance between he and it. For every five of Gauk’s steps, the ogre took two long strides. It would be on Gauk in a moment.
A pile of sunken rocks not far outside the clearing formed a haphazard wall, a perfect wind buffer for any camp made in the cramped clearing. Gauk traversed the rocks, finding the hand- and footholds while somehow managing to hold on to his torch. In two bounds the courier lept over the rock wall.
The stupid blind ogre didn’t see the rocks. It tripped trying to charge, fell forward, and smashed its barrel belly and face into the ground with a ponderous smack. Gauk felt the ogre’s fall reverberate through his bones as the forest quaked. He nearly toppled but kept his feet, grinning with success.
An angry wine exploded from the thing and it quickly untangled its body with intent to continue the chase. It was hungry.
Gauk didn’t realize his heart had been pounding so loudly. He didn’t need the torch’s heat to draw the thing, the drum in his chest called the ogre to hunt all by the organ’s self.
Drawing in a deep breath, Gauk took off at a sprint as the laborious ogre slowly gained speed again.
This is going to be a long night in Hooton. Gauk wondered if he’d ever see Gabby again.