I enter deeper into the Dark Forest, aware that blood-thirsty predators are strung out in a line behind me. I stop for a moment to catch my breath, to gather my thoughts, to allow my eyes to adjust to the growing gloom.
The feral stench of the hunters gets closer. It fills my nostrils and makes me nauseous. Shivering with fear, I pull my cape tight about me, despite the cloying humidity.
As the pursuing brutes drive me onwards, I ponder the benefit of being ‘the fairest of them all’. At this juncture in time I’d rather take my chances with the Wicked Queen than in this god-forsaken place.
Just within my peripheral vision, shadows dart about me, encouraging me to press on. I wipe away the stream of perspiration dripping from my face, ever conscious of the hunters’ menacing proximity and their deadly intent.
Then the rain starts.
Plump droplets of rainwater form overhead, trapped in an entangled net of tree boughs. The droplets grow and become pendulous until gravity pulls them away from the blackness of the forest canopy.
The stink of rotting detritus rises from the forest floor and this time I can’t help but retch.
The predators have grown ominously silent. Perhaps, I surmise somewhat optimistically, they have given up the hunt. I’m tired to the point of exhaustion and reduce my speed from a stumbling run to a brisk, cautious walk.
In response, unseen hands shake the surrounding foliage. The hunters are toying with me, playing with me as a cat plays with a mouse. They’re urging me to increase my pace to make a successful hunt of it.
I do as I’m bidden.
As I scramble through the undergrowth, branches whip my face, and at one stage I stagger into a patch of mud verging on quicksand. I struggle out, panting, get to my feet and chance a glance over my shoulder. Wild eyes stare back at me, glittering in the gloom. Tears of fear and frustration run down my face, mingling with the sweat. Then, in front of me, a virtually impenetrable web of creepers blocks my path. The pursuers, lurking in the safety of darkness, shake branches in their excitement and force me forward.
With what feels like the last of my strength I pull at the dark green curtain, create a gap and push my way through the snaking creepers.
I’m out of the Dark Forest, in an open area, running across rain-sodden ground. Somewhere in front of me I hear the rush of a nearby river and head towards the sound. Perhaps, I decide, this is a chance of escape – maybe my one chance. If only I can make it to the stream.
Ahead of me the solid shoulder of earth that comprises the riverbank suddenly erupts. The looming bulk of a troll rises in front of me out of the earth. The monster fills my vision, blocking out the roiling clouds above.
Driven by an appetite for human flesh, the monster descends on me, its chomping jaws wide open. Yet all at once it wavers in its resolve. The hunters are breaking cover, yelling their horrible battle cry. The troll is caught between conflicting responses — the prize of an easy meal, or the instinct for self-preservation.
It hesitates too long, though. Spears and arrows fly, piercing the creature’s hide. It roars in agony and takes ineffectual swipes at its enemies. Blood spurts from gaping wounds, and the fight is quickly over.
Later, in my captors’ woodland hovel, I’m locked up in my cage again. I watch in disgust as the hunters roast troll meat on a spit and pull off chunks of undercooked flesh with their bare hands. Drunk on ale, they soon find their voices and sing about their famous victory over the fabled beast.
In the midst of their celebrations, the grumpy one — whose job is to ensure my well-being — leaves his comrades in mid-song. He approaches my cage and passes a troll steak through the bars. The flesh is pink, almost raw, yet I tear at it ravenously with my teeth.
“Little girl good for hunting,” he says, grinning. “You make good troll bait.”
The other hunters cackle with cruel laughter, nod in agreement and begin singing another ditty.
This nightmare I’m living can’t continue forever. So I close my eyes and try imagining an alternative future to one of servitude and bondage — a future where the hero of my dreams rescues me.
One day, I tell myself, over and over, my prince will come.
I’ve almost convinced myself of the truth of this mantra when the inebriated hunters let out their fearsome battle cry.
“Hi! Ho!” they shout, those two blood-curdling words reverberating through my skull. “Hi! Ho!”
Paul A. Freeman is the author of Rumours of Ophir, a crime novel set in Zimbabwe. His narrative poem Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers, and his second crime novel, Vice and Virtue, have also been published. Over seventy-five of his short stories have appeared in print. He currently lives in Abu Dhabi with his family, and despite reports to the contrary, he never swims in the nude. He can be found at www.paulfreeman.weebly.com.