The boys were rulers of the forest. They were kings, each sharing in the dominion of their verdant realm, wearing headdresses befitting of their role, leaping through bushes and over rotting logs and about the crumbled soft knots of dirt, running across paths known only to them. For them, doors exist where others simply see a wall, and the forest was a house of doors.
The oldest was Lewis, but it was Huygens that led them, being the biggest. The others followed his lead whenever they went walkabout, and it was he that knew the paths best. There was a name for every path, most of which were unmarked and untraveled, and Huygens (whom the others called the Bear) had named them. There was the Blood Circle path, the Grey Fur way, the Ninja Mountain pass, the Dry Bone Gully. Most important was a path known only as the Trail, which each king spoke of with reverence whenever they referred to it. It was said that the kings of old, who wore the antlers of the legendary Moor Elk upon their shaggy masks, had used the Trail as a passageway to the Underworld. The boys did not know how to use the trail in this way, but unlocking that secret was among their greatest obsessions.
Lewis was not interested in leading the kings, though he may have been able to, despite his bright and sandy orange hair which the others ridiculed. While Huygens knew the names of the paths, Lewis knew the names of everything else. He knew the names of the plants and the birds. It was he that the others called Shaman, for his knowledge of the forest was unmatched. He knew the homes of the savage Longtooth, the rocky burrows of the timid Eeps. He could always find roots, and tell the edible ones apart from the poisonous ones, and in a forest as noble as this, the roots were almost always poisonous.
There were two others who ruled over the forest. Ray was the thin one, and youngest of all of them. He was a weaselly sort of fellow, with a keen eye and fast feet. These traits, which may have been ideal for a forward scout, were tempered by an ineffable laziness that none of the others could match. He much preferred to play tricks on the others, or tell grandiose stories. Much to Ray’s amusement, the others called him Coyote. Sam was simply small, as small as Huygens was big, and always seemed to be covered in some kind of dirt, even before the boys began their daily expeditions. Thus, he was their scout, able and willing to climb through a crack in some boulder, or up trees to get a better view. He could not see as well as Ray, and even required spectacles half of the time, but nonetheless offered what skills he had happily enough. The others dubbed him Gnome.
The four kings shared a certain consanguinity, but none truly lived in the forest. The homes of Bear, Shaman, Coyote, and Gnome lay just on the edge of the forest, peaked modern roofs soaring over the spindly boughs of the forest’s arms. The kings, despite their prowess and renown in the arboreal realm, knew themselves vulnerable to attack when sleeping, and thought it better to leave the forest every night than to be slain at the hands of the fierce creatures roaming benighted forest glades. And besides, their parents would be concerned if the kings did not make at least one daily appearance in their palaces. The kings slept contentedly, for they knew that the forest was never far away.
It was the end of the vernal times when the kings were loosed into the forest, and it was then that the four made their way to visit the Horse’s Crag, a land on the distant side of their realm. There were stables there, which gave the place the first piece of its name; the second piece simply befitted it. The path was many miles away, but the kings had all day to travel. Bear had previously led the four through the Indigo Ditch (an irrigation canal with oil stains from the highway uphill five miles north) to reach the Horse’s Crag, and was ready to follow that trail yet another time, but Coyote laughed at him.
“You always choose the Indigo Ditch. Perhaps it is the only trail you know?”
“It is the best way to the Horse’s Crag. This knowledge was known to the kings of old, and is no different for us,” Bear growled.
“Who is to say that the forest of the old kings is the same forest we travel today? You have asked names of the trails before, Bear, and they have told you their names… yet we have still not walked the Trail of trails.”
“I have not spoken to every trail,” Bear said. “If I had, we would walk the Trail this very day.”
“Well, perhaps in following another trail, we can learn how to walk to the Underworld.”
Bear mulled this over irritably.
“I admit, I agree with Coyote,” Shaman spoke. “The Indigo Ditch is rank this time of year. The poison vapors would kill lesser beings than we.”
“Gnome?” Coyote asked.
“Yeah, sure. I don’t see why not. Let’s go another way.”
“Fine,” Bear said. “Just know, the going will be much slower.”
Instead of following the ditch, the kings turned to a hillock in the west, which followed a ridge up above the Indigo Ditch. Bear stopped them near the top of the hillock, waiting and listening.
“This trail is the Wendigo Way,” Bear said after a moment’s thought.
“On this trail once lived a horde of the mighty wendigo,” Bear said sadly.
“Wendigo?” Gnome asked.
“Once human themselves, they tasted human flesh, and turned into monsters,” Shaman said. “From that moment on, they were cursed beings doomed to immortal hunger. As a wendigo grows, it becomes more and more grotesque, back hunching over until it eventually turns into stone. The legends vary, but this ridge may very well have been built upon the backs of thousands of petrified wendigo.”
“Creepy.” Coyote said. “I wonder if you could ride one. They sound like they would make fearsome battle-mounts.”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” Shaman continued. “Wendigo are so ravenous, that no one who has ever seen one alive has lived to tell the tale. They just eat their prey whole.”
“Then how did… never mind.” Gnome said. “Let’s go.”
The kings followed the ridge, stopping occasionally to drink some water and gaze at their surroundings. At noon they would stop for lunch, consisting of sandwiches, but for now they ran on their respective breakfasts. The ridge initially swept west, but sank back down slightly and turned north, towards the Horse’s Crag.
When the sun was only halfway to its zenith, the kings found the cave.
“What is it?” Bear asked.
“Looks like a cave to me,” Gnome said from the treetop. He was the first to see it.
“Pretty big, yeah. Let’s get closer.”
They got closer, stopping at the mouth of the cave.
“Bones. Lots of them,” Bear said grimly.
“Looks like a predator lives here,” Shaman said. “Keep an eye out. We don’t want to run into a mountain lion up here.”
“Ha! Hey, guys, check these out!” Coyote held up a elk skull, antlers spread like the fingers of a fire. “This is huge!”
“Moor Elk,” Shaman said, eye’s wide. “We need to remember this. No, scratch that, we need to take this with us. The kings of old wore crowns fashioned from the antlers of a Moor Elk.”
“Oh, I’m definitely holding on to this,” Coyote said, slinging it under his arm.
A low throaty sound, like a growl, emanated from the cave.
The kings stood stiffly, silently, still, for a good ten seconds.
“You all heard that, right? It didn’t just get really quiet?” Gnome whispered.
Bear and Shaman nodded, while Coyote shook his head in denial.
“Ok, I’m going to take a look,” Gnome said. Before any of the others could stop him, he stepped down into the cave.
“What!? Gnome!” Bear hissed. “Come back!”
There was no answer for a moment, then Gnome called back:
“I’m fine! Just give me a minute, I’m almost there-“
Then a growling snarl, a crumbing rock, the sound of a collision. A scream. Gnome appeared again, before a monstrous arm swept out, pulling him back into the darkness, and then snapping and crunching and the screams were gone.
The other kings stood wide eyed, before running.
It was a hectic dash, but they reached a clearing. Realizing nobody was following them, they stopped.
“It didn’t look like a mountain lion.”
“A wendigo,” Shaman said firmly, shaken.
“Oh no. We just lost Sam.”
“You mean Gnome,” Shaman said.
“No, I mean Sam. Like literally, he was just eaten. I’m done. We’ve got to get away from here,” Ray said. All of his sense of humor was gone.
“We are kings,” Shaman noted.
“We’re not kings unless there are all four of us,” Ray yelled. “Without all four of us… we’re just… we’re just outlaws.”
“Well, maybe he’s alright. Maybe if we go back…” Bear said.
“A wendigo eats its prey whole,” Shaman said gravely.
“It’s not a wendigo, okay? It’s just a huge mountain lion,” Ray said.
“We can’t deal with a mountain lion,” Bear said.
“You all know that thing wasn’t a mountain lion,” Shaman said.
“Look, I don’t care. Mountain lion, wendigo, whatever it is, we need to get help.”
They stood breathing hard for a minute, before Bear nodded.
“Ok. Follow me.”
They went back towards the neighborhood, half walking, half running. The adrenaline pushed them faster than they usually went, and they made it back to their palaces before they knew it.
Breathing hard, they rushed into Huygen’s kitchen. Bear’s dad was cooking some kind of chicken and asparagus dish.
“Oh, hey boys,” Huygens’s father said. “Where’s Sam?”
“He… he…” Tears were running down Ray’s face. “He went into a cave, and there was something in there, and it got him, and he didn’t come out, and we ran, and…”
“Whoa, slow down. Like a wild animal?”
For lack of a better phrase, the outlaws nodded.
“Okay. Stay put, I’ll call the police.”
Huygens’s father rushed to the phone, calling the police quickly. While waiting for the operator to transfer them over, he had Huygens draw him a map of about where it happened, and relayed as much as he could to the other side. After a few minutes of talking, he put down the receiver.
“Okay. They’re sending a search party. Should have a guy here in a few minutes, and he’ll tell the others where to look on radio. I’m calling Sam’s parents.”
The outlaws sat in the living room, quietly.
“Wendigo are notoriously hard to track,” Lewis said. “They wear leaves on their feet to disguise their footprints. They can cover their lairs and hide underground if they need to.”
“Shut up about the wendigo already,” Ray said. “I don’t care about your make-believe story.” He stood up, pouting, still crying. “We just… left him to die out there.”
“We’re getting help,” Huygens said.
“Well, they’ll be too late,” Ray said. “You know what? I’m leaving.”
“What if the police want to ask you questions?” Lewis asked.
“I don’t care. Here, take the stupid antlers.” Ray had been carrying them whole time. Nobody had noticed. Ray threw them onto the coffee table, scratching it up a bit, before turning and storming out.
Huygens and Lewis sat there for a few more minutes.
“Policeman will be here at any moment.”
“I know,” Lewis said. “But I think I might have a plan.”
“What?” Huygens asked confusedly.
“A plan. Just help the search party people, the police and everything, you know the whole story.”
“Wait, you aren’t leaving too, are you? The police might think you’re a suspect if you just leave. You’re supposed to stay and answer questions.”
“I’ll be back soon enough. And besides, I’m an outlaw now. Doing what I’m supposed to do isn’t in my nature.” Lewis picked up the antlered skull and opened the screen door to the backyard.
“See you soon, Bear.” Lewis ran out through Huygen’s backyard, propped the skull up on his head, and crowned with his stolen kingship, stepped into the forest as Shaman.
The Trail was not hard to find, but seeing through the skull was somewhat awkward. It was what was necessary, though, if the legends had any truth to them. A mask with the Moor Elk’s antlers.
The Trail began the same way it always did, open and flat, neatly paved with gravel. As Shaman followed it, it began to break down, crumble into a dirt path, began to contain more weeds and grasses, and soon was hardly paved at all. This wasn’t the Trail that Bear knew. This wasn’t the trail any of the kings had known.
Soon it began to grow dark, which was strange- the afternoon had just begun. It was almost as if the forest itself had become darker, dimmer, lower. Sinking. Shaman got used to the light, still holding the antlered helm steady. The bushes rustled, and when Shaman looked at them he couldn’t be sure whether it was a bush that was rustling or a mass of insects, huddled into a mass.
Everything was ambiguous here.
Shaman soon stopped, feeling an oppressive force. A large shadow stood in his path.
“I have claimed one here as my own. You cannot take it from me.”
“I think you’ll find you are wrong, wendigo.”
“Who are you?”
“I am a king of the forest. Clear the way, or feel my wrath.”
The shadow slipped backwards, but remained close.
“You will not always reign over this realm as you do, young king,” the wendigo spoke. “One day you shall forget about the forest, and its creatures, and you will forget about the truths of this place. You will laugh and call it all your imagination, all a fairy-tale. And when that day comes, you will no longer have the power to push me aside.”
“Today is not that day. Leave this place, now.”
The shadow slipped away into the distance, and the oppressive force left.
Then he heard the crying. Somewhere in the dark, there was somebody crying. Without leaving the Trail (still somehow distinguishable from its surroundings), Shaman approached the sound. The path led to a tree, to which a boy was sitting.
“Yeah, it’s me. Come on.”
“Where? There’s no way out of here, I checked. I climbed the tree, but it’s too dark.”
“I know the way… just hold on to me, and you’ll be fine.”
“I… I think I died back there.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just don’t let go.”
The two traced out the path Shaman had taken, backtracking. The Trail seemed almost different on the way back than it had seemed on the way in. The trees bent without a breeze, some towards the Trail, some away from it. The roots moved like snakes. The dark side of the forest was alive, simply because it was full of dead things.
Soon it got lighter, and lighter, and then they were in the backyard of Huygens’s place. The thinly cropped grass and stone garden confirmed that this was a carefully curated lawn.
Lewis removed the elk skull, tossing it to the ground.
“I never want to do that again.”
“I’m glad you did,” Sam said. He was a bit bruised and scraped and visibly shaken, but otherwise seemed healthy.
The two stepped into the house. An officer was sitting on one of the living room couches, talking to Huygens and his father, as well as Sam’s parents, and was the first to see the two boys appear.
“Oh, thank goodness,” she said, before turning on the radio. “Call the search party back- we found him. He showed up at the house.” And she stood up, turning to Huygen’s father and Sam’s parents. “This happens sometimes, kids get lost, they panic. Don’t worry- you did exactly the right thing by calling us. That’s what we’re here for: making sure everyone’s all right.”
“Thank you very much, officer.” They shook hands. Tears were shed. Warnings were issued. Before long they were all done with their assurances.
And after it had grown late enough, Shaman walked home, knowing that ventures into the forest would be delayed for a short time, but that soon enough, the kings would once more rightfully assemble in their verdant realm, and travel the paths of that incredible world.