Picture by GregRob (Creative Commons)
If the travellers had hoped that the forest would look less daunting in daylight, they were to be disappointed. If anything, the forbiddingness of the chill, black interior was enhanced by its contrast with the warm, bright morning. As the birds chattered and called to each other overhead, the forest seemed all the more ominous by its silence.
The three men ate a meagre breakfast before shouldering their bags once more. Though reluctant to move forward, they knew that hanging back was no solution. The fear would only grow as they dallied; the time had come to face it down.
As they had agreed the previous evening, they armed themselves with sturdy tree branches to use as clubs. Forming themselves into a tight triangle, each man’s back protected by the others, they began to move slowly into the darkness. They rotated their triangle clockwise as they went, so that each man had his fair share of seeing what lay ahead, and so that they didn’t leave a weak spot between them exposed for any length of time.
Straining their ears for approaching threats, they murmured warnings to each other of obstacles ahead or hazards approaching. “Tree trunk across the path.” ”Low hanging brambles.” “Movement to my left.” “I see it, looks like a bear, approaching fast.” “Watch out for the feathery vines, they sting like nettles.” “Bear!” “Bats!”
With that they no longer had time or breath for warnings. Sam and Tom beat at the bear coming at them on their side, while Jon protected their heads from the screeching bats.
Like a well-trained regiment, the men circled and fought, fell back, re-grouped, advanced and reformed over and over again. When they had succeeded in ensnaring the bear in the stinging vines, they found they had disturbed a nest of rat-like creatures which nipped at their feet and ankles. When Jon’s arms tired of fending off the bats overhead, one of the others took over and he began wielding his club close to the ground in a manner somewhere between an inexpert golf swing and a canoeist’s paddle stroke.
Hour after hour they fought, adapting to each new threat, all sustaining injuries, each protecting the others, and all the while edging further and further along the path. At last Tom gasped out, “I see daylight!” Relief gave the men a final burst of energy, and with one last onslaught they threw off the creatures who were clinging to or flying at them, and ran to the light.
Panting, laughing and groaning, they sank to the ground in the lush meadow beyond the forest’s edge. For a long while, they just lay there, catching their breaths, but soon the pain of their wounds began to impinge too heavily on their consciousnesses, and they had to sit up and examine the damage.
Sam had a crimson sweep of nettle-stings across his face and neck. Tom’s forehead was bruised where he had collided with a low branch, and his left eye was almost swollen shut. Jon’s hands had been lacerated by the claws of the bats and he also had multiple scratches on his face and head. All three found their trouser legs in tatters and the skin beneath them raw and bleeding from a combination of animal scratches, insect bites and nettle stings. They bound each other’s wounds, bathing them in water from their pouches, finding cool dock leaves to press against the stings and ease their pain.
When they had patched each other up as best they could, Tom, hearing a stream somewhere nearby, went to refill the water pouches so they could be on their way.
“I’m not sure I can go any further,” Jon said to Sam when Tom was out of earshot. “I’ve been too badly wounded.”
“Nonsense,” Sam scoffed, thinking Jon must be joking, “We’ve all got a bit battered, but it’s nothing that serious.”
“Maybe not for you, but look, my hands are cut to pieces, and they’re so painful. I don’t think you understand what I went through in there. It was terrifying and incredibly hard work. That’s not just something you get up and walk away from, you know. I need time to heal before I move on.”
“What’s that?” asked Tom who had caught the end of this statement, “Did something happen to your legs, can you not walk?”
“No, I think I can walk OK,” Jon explained, “It’s just that I wouldn’t be any use to the king with my hands in this state, and I don’t really want to face him with scratches and scars all over my face. I’ll just wait here until I’m fully healed, then I’ll follow on.”
Sam and Tom argued with Jon, trying to convince him that he would heal just as well on the journey as he would sitting alone in a field, probably better, and that far from despising the scars he bore, the king would see them as the marks of a man who had fought honourably in his quest.
Jon, however, would not be moved. He was determined to stay where he was, nursing his wounds and looking back at the trial he had passed. His companions eventually had to let him have his way; they were eager to press on towards the reward that awaited them, and would not let Jon hold them back.
Sadly, they walked away, turning back often to see if he would change his mind and follow them, but when they could no longer make out his poor, huddled, distant figure behind them, they set their faces forward and strode on towards their destination.