“... Two, one, zero! Ready or not, here I come!” Tom stopped spinning and uncovered his eyes. He stumbled a bit to his side and looked around. He saw large tree trunks and their roots crawling in and out of the ground, but no feet stuck out from behind the trees. He tried being quiet, listening for laughter or the sound of a stick breaking. All he heard was the wind rustling the leaves high up above him, leaves that were so dense he couldn’t really see the sky through them. He started to walk around, peering behind trees, seeing if he could spot one of the other kids. They’d walked much further into the forest than they normally did to play, and so he wasn’t able to rely upon searching the normal hiding spots.
“You guys hid really well this time, I have to say,” he yelled. He hadn’t even found one of them so far, not even heard one of them. That was a little unusual, he was pretty good at hide-and-seek. So good in fact that the other kids sometimes played tricks on him and went back to their village when he was it and counting. They hadn’t done that in a while though, not since they’d got into so much trouble for doing it the last time. Tom had made sure they got in trouble, even if he had to suffer as well.
“How could you be out there by yourself? Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be alone in those woods?” his mom had scolded him.
They hadn’t been allowed to play in the woods for a week after that. Actually, they weren’t allowed to play in the woods right now either, but that’s why they wouldn’t have left him. If they left him again, he’d tell on them again, and they’d be in huge trouble this time. It had been made quite clear to them they weren’t allowed to play in the woods since some boy from a neighboring village had gone missing. Apparently his name had been Alfred.
Tom was starting to get frustrated, the other kids were nowhere to be found. He’d looked around every tree near home base and even under a couple of the larger rocks, but all he had to show for it was dirt on his knees.
“Olly olly oxen free! Come on out!” Tom yelled, then added with some difficulty, “I give up!”
There was no response. Oh well, he’d get them back later, once he found his way back to the village. Then they’d all be in trouble, they wouldn’t be able to play for weeks after this. Now Tom just had to figure out how to get back. Since they’d gone further than normal to avoid their parents seeing them, he didn’t recognize anything.
Tom tried peering through the leaves above him. The forest stretched forever to the east of the village, so that meant the village must be to the west of the forest. If he could figure out where the sun was, then he’d know which direction to go. Unfortunately, all he could tell was that the sun was above him and that it was midday, but that didn’t help him much except to realize that he was probably missing lunch back home. His mom was probably making something delicious, and he was going to miss it. She would probably save him some though, have it ready for him when he got back.
Not knowing which direction was west, he picked a rock that he thought looked sort of familiar and walked in its direction. As soon as he saw something familiar, he would know where he was. Fortunately he knew the woods like the back of his hand, so he knew he wouldn’t be lost long.
Tom walked for a really long time, doing his best to keep going straight, but the tree trunks being in his way caused him to meander a bit. As he walked, he thought of home and particularly of one of the stories his mom would tell him before she put out the candle at night.
“Don’t go too far into the woods when you play, Tom. There are still some trolls and other creatures left in there that like to eat little boys all up. Even us adults don’t dare venture too far into it alone.”
It wasn’t much of a bedtime story but, then again, his mom wasn’t very good at stories.
A root reached out of the ground and grabbed Tom’s foot, causing him to trip and land hard on the ground. With the wind knocked out of him, Tom laid and looked up. The sun was no longer directly overhead. In fact, it was off to the right and a little behind the direction he had been walking. That meant he had been walking the wrong way, but all he had to do now was go towards the sun and follow the treeline south once he exited the forest.
Happy he now had a plan, Tom picked himself up, brushed himself off, and started walking again, this time in the right direction. After a while, Tom noticed the shadows in the forest getting darker, and wondered if he’d make it back home in time for dinner. He felt his stomach gurgle.
Finally, the trees came to an abrupt stop and Tom had found the end to the woods. He scanned the edge of the forest to his right, hoping to maybe see his village. Instead, he just saw more trees. He wasn’t actually at the edge just yet, he was just in a large clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a big, steep hill, which Tom found odd since everywhere else he’d walked was so flat, and so was the rest of the clearing. On top of the hill were two trees, and at the moment the sun nestled just above their branches. A thin trail of smoke snaked out from top of the hill and into the two trees.
Smoke meant fire, and fire meant maybe there was food there. Tom walked towards the hill and then around its base, and then he came upon a cave that led into and under the hill itself. Light flickered on the wall at the end of a tunnel, coming from a fire around a corner. That must be where the smoke is coming from.
The sun was setting and it was getting too dark to walk through the forest, and Tom was hungry, so this would be a good place to spend the night and hopefully get something to eat. Once morning came, he could be on his way and find his village.
He walked down through the tunnel, it being more than large enough for him to do so comfortably. The tunnel ceiling was two or three times his height. As he approached the corner that the light flickered upon, he could hear the crackling of a fire, a couple crunching sounds and a burp. Good, whoever was there was eating dinner, and he’d gotten there just in time. Tom turned the corner.
He found himself in a huge room of bare rock walls with a fire roaring in a pit in the center. In a great big wooden chair next to the fire sat a large man with an even larger belly, and that belly spilled over the only piece of clothing he wore, a brown stained loincloth. One apelike arm hung over a side of the chair, and the other was picking at his teeth. He had thin shaggy hair that fell in clumps down his head and across his face, partially hiding an oversized lopsided nose. He was covered everywhere in giant warts.
“Wow. You are the ugliest person I’ve ever seen,” Tom said. He couldn’t help himself. The man was ugly.
“Huh?” The man turned to look at him. “I didn’t hear you come in, welcome. What was that you said?” he asked in a deep gravelly voice that made Tom think of boulders grinding against each other.
“I said you were ugly. I don’t really mean it in a bad way, it’s just a fact,” Tom stated confidently.
“Oh, well, that’s why there are no mirrors in here. If you look around, you won’t find a single one. I wouldn’t want to break any just by looking at them, you know.” The man laughed as he said the last bit.
“That’s just an old wive’s tale, you know, they don’t actually break when ugly people look in them. Otherwise Sally’s house would be full of broken glass. She’s not quite as ugly as you are though, so maybe it is good you don’t have mirrors.” Tom paused. “Do you happen to have any food I could have? I’ve been walking all day, and I’m awfully hungry.”
The man in the chair picked at his teeth again. “Actually, I just finished up the best meal I’d had in a long time. Sadly there’s none left for you. Luckily, it was a good meal and very filling. May I ask why you’re doing so far out into the forest?”
“Oh, my stupid friends tricked me again and left me out here,” Tom said. “They’ve done it before, but this time I got lost and went the wrong way. I know where I’m going now though, it’s just getting dark and I thought I’d spend the night here.”
“Spend the night here? It’s not safe out in these woods for something like you, you know. Maybe it would be best if you just went on your way home now.”
“But you just said it’s dangerous out there, didn’t you? I’ll just leave in the morning,” Tom said. He walked over to the man, then stopped and looked around. “Do you have another chair? I don’t want to sit on the ground.”
The man shook his head slowly and said, “No, I don’t, never had a reason to have one. The guests I do have generally don’t need it.”
Tom brushed the floor of the cave with his feet, sweeping away some of the dirt. There were little droplets of dark mud splattered across the ground, and Tom cleared them away too, then he sat down. He glanced at a spot near the fire on the other side of the man’s chair.
“Whose clothes are those? They don’t look nearly big enough for you.”
“Those belonged to my last guest. He didn’t need a chair.” The man shifted in his seat, causing it to creak.
“Well, I do need a chair. And I’d like some food.” Tom wrinkled his nose and then covered it with his hand. “Oh, my gosh, did you just fart? That smells terrible!”
The man chuckled. “Guess my guest didn’t agree with me.”
“What do you mean? That doesn’t mean you can just do something like that do me. I’ll tell my mom that you did that!”
Suddenly the man jumped from his chair. He was a great deal taller than Tom had assumed, and he could move a lot faster than Tom would’ve thought too. He looked anxious.
“No. No, you won’t. I can’t let you do that,” he said as he looked down on Tom.
Tom craned his neck back to look up at him. “I can and I will, you can’t stop me. You haven’t fed me, you don’t have a chair for me to sit on, and now you’re being rude. You’re a mean person, and I’m going to tell mom on you.”
The man looked angry now, and he reached down towards Tom.
“Don’t touch me!” Tom exclaimed and scrambled backwards.
“Get back here! I will not be hunted down like the rest of them!” the man shouted with a voice like thunder. Then, quieter, “I hardly bother the humans, and I make sure to never take more than I need ... but you will be an exception.”
“What do you mean? Get away from me!” Tom yelled at the man as he narrowly escaped getting grabbed again and started running for the exit.
The man moved much too fast for having such a large belly, and his long arms got closer and closer to Tom with each ground-shaking step.
“Get away!” he yelled as he reached the corner leading back into the tunnel. He turned to see how close the man was, and a huge hand closed around his middle like a vice. Tom tried to shake him off, but the man held on and plucked him off from the floor and into the air. Tom desperately grabbed for the rock wall, anything, and then squirmed and beat on the man’s hand. The man’s other hand closed around Tom’s head, and there was a twist and a crack. He was set down on the ground, ready for whenever the troll grew hungry once more.