Macy and Anna Save Candyland Bite 10
The Licorice Forest
When the weapons were ready, they all reconvened under the spreading tree.
"Okay, weapons are as good as they're gonna be. What else can we do to prepare?" Macy asked the group.
"We should definitely set up a schedule for watches during the night." Peter replied. "And, perhaps we should take turns leading the group on the trail. That way no single one of us gets too tired of being the lead lookout." They decided that Anna and Starlight would lead first, followed by Macy and Peter, ending with Mr. Mint and Snickers and the cart. When the group in the lead had been there for two hours, they would drop to the back of the group, and the next in line would move to the front. The lead pair would also decide on where to stop and rest.
"A good, solid plan overall." Macy said, approvingly. "Let's get to it." She stood and stretched, then picked up her walking stick and took her place in line.
They reached the outskirts of the forest a mile later. Macy shivered.
"Do we really have to travel through there? It looks so dark." The trees ahead bore no resemblance to the Peppermint forest, or even the Gingerbread woods from earlier in their journey. These trees grew closely together, so closely that their branches twisted and wound their way through each other. It was difficult to tell if you were looking at one big tree or many small trees. The underbrush was scant, almost nonexistent. The path they followed ran into the wood and seemed to disappear. "I don't like the looks of this at all." Macy clutched her walking stick tighter, its solid weight in her hand a small comfort against the darkness of the woods. The scent of black licorice hung heavy in the air. An oppressive scent, it sent another shiver down Macy's neck.
At the edge of the wood, an man dressed in uniform paced back and forth. Ten steps north, turn, ten steps south. He spotted them coming and paused on the trail.
"Be you friend, or be you foe!" He called across to them in a booming voice.
"We are the daughters of King Mattel," Macy shouted back. "May we approach?"
"Come!" was the simple reply. They slowly moved toward the guard. As they grew nearer they could see that the soldier wore the multicolored uniform of King Kandy's personal guard. He was tall and barrel-chested. His hair was dark and straight and his round face was home to a long, full beard. "What is your business on this road?" The soldier's voice was no less booming even at close range.
"Sir, I am Princess Macy Mattel, and this is my sister, Princess Anna Mattel. We along with Mr Mint, guardian of the Peppermint Forest, our manservant Peter Awn, and our friend Starlight are traveling to King Kandy's birthday celebration. We received a personal invitation from the King himself."
"Do you have this invitation I could inspect?" he boomed.
"Of course, it's right here." Macy reached into her bag and pulled out the golden engraved letter they'd received so many weeks ago. The soldier looked long and hard at the paper.
"Looks like it checks out." he grunted. "I am Big League Chew, by name. King Kandy tasked me with keeping this road safe. I don't intend to let any criminals, mischief makers, ne' er-do-wells, wastrels, or other miscreants travel past me. Since you obviously check out, and you appear to be royalty, I suppose I must let you pass."
"Thank you, Mr. Chew." Macy said politely. She reached out and took the invitation back from the oriental soldier. Putting her hands together in front of her chest, she bowed low to Mr. Chew. He bowed in return.
"Be safe on the trail. Don't stray into the forest. There are many paths into this wood. I cannot patrol them all." The small group moved past the soldier, and entered the darkness of the forest. As they went around a bend in the trail, Anna glanced back. Big League Chew was pacing back and forth across the path once again. Ten steps south, turn, and ten steps north. He raised his hand in a final farewell and then disappeared from her sight as she continued around the curve.
Deeper into the Woods
The group was tense as they wandered along the path through the woods. No one spoke to each other. No birds chirped. No animals crossed their path. Anna, now bringing up the rear of the group with Starlight, studied the trees they passed by. The bark of the trees was dark and twisted in a spiral pattern that reached out along each branch. Some were brown, some black, and some a dark, purply red. Their leaves were a deep black as well, absorbing all of the sun's light. Very little underbrush grew along the dim path. The heavy, licorice scent grew more and more oppressive the farther into the forest they went. It seemed like a weight had draped itself across Anna's shoulders. She shrugged first her left side, then her right, but the motion didn't help. The hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention like so many soldiers. She felt herself holding her breath, so she concentrated on breathing for a time. In. Out. In. Out. Just as she was starting to become more at ease, a noisy crack echoed through the forest, shattering the silence into splinters. She jumped high into the air. Her heart raced. Snickers shied backward and whinnied.
"What was that?" Anna cried.
"Just a fallen branch," Mr. Mint said as he looked back at her. "Not to worry."
"I almost had a heart attack," she replied.
"You weren't the only one," Peter called back from his position in the lead. "Macy here jumped three feet." Macy grinned sheepishly and nodded.
"I guess we're all a little jumpy," she said. "Let's keep moving." They started off once again. Anna, scanning the trees, thought she caught a flash of blue within the trees beyond. Blue, she thought to herself, more blue. She strained her eyes, trying to make out a shape. Was it the form of a man? Or maybe just a gap in the trees allowing more sunlight in and playing a trick on her eyes. What was out there? Was there someone following them? Perhaps the man Peter had been talking to was tracking them. She wished she knew wether she was in danger and who her enemies truly were.
Meanwhile, Macy and Peter were discussing the trail ahead.
"Will we be able to make it through the forest before nightfall?" Macy asked.
"I'm not completely sure," he replied. "It has been a long time since I've come this way. Getting through the wood then could be accomplished in a matter of a few hours, but it has become more overgrown and stretched farther across the land in the intervening years. I pray we do not have to spend the night here. I believe that would be quite dangerous for you and your sister, not to mention the the rest of us. We should keep pressing forward for as long as we can, walking on into the night if we must." Macy increased the speed of her step and fell quiet. Soon she thought of another question.
"Doesn't Lord Licorice live in this place?"
"Yes, he has a castle near the center of the woods. We will be coming upon in within the hour, I think." Peter was right. The scruffy trees at the edge of the path began thinning out and the road became more smooth. Soon, they could see an opening up ahead. they cautiously approached the gap. The gap in the trees turned out to be the beginning of another road.
"This is Lord Licorice's driveway." Peter announced in a solemn tone of voice. The others drew up alongside Peter and Macy. They peered down the road toward the castle. About ten feet away, guarding the head of the driveway stood two huge gargoyles, one on either side. The gargoyles resembled large dogs, mastiffs Macy thought they were called, who had sprouted huge wings. Their mouths curled up in a snarl. One paw was raised in a "keep out" gesture. Once they had been white marble, but now they were dark with age and moss and licorice colored soot.
"When Lord Licorice first owned this castle and this forest, he would host fancy parties." Peter said.
"Didn't people take offense to these creatures?" Macy asked. It gave her the creeps to look at them. She couldn't imagine driving past them to get to a party.
"Oh, the gargoyles weren't here then," Peter responded. "Back then he had twin deer at this entrance. Beautiful stags with twelve pointed antlers. I don't know what has happened to those statues now. He replaced them with these gargoyles around the same time he stopped throwing elaborate parties." Far off down the drive, they could see the Licorice castle, its twisted spires reaching to the sky. Macy counted six turrets, and if she squinted, she could just make out the front door, a large, imposing feature at the front of the immense building. Feeling chilled, she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"I'd like to keep going." she said with a shiver. The rest agreed and they reformed their line, with Mr. Mint and Snickers taking their turn in the lead position.
Night was falling when they next encountered a guard on the road.
"Halt!" He called when they were two hundred yards away. "Be you friend or be you enemy?" Anna moved forward to talk to the soldier as Macy pulled the invitation from her bag again. The soldier, who was as large as Big Chew, but more blonde, patrolled an area near a cabin set back a few paces from the road. The cabin itself was small, and made with licorice logs. The logs were placed so their spiral bark intertwined filling in any gaps between each log. This construction made the overall structure much stronger. "Your paperwork checks out," The guard, who wore a multi-colored uniform which matched Big Chew's, conceded. "I think it is best if you stay the night in my cabin. You still have two hours of trail to cover before you exit the wood, and even then you are in danger. Better to travel these parts in the daylight, when you can see behind and before. I have beds for all of you. The cabin looks small, but I think you will find there is enough room. Except, perhaps for you, my friend," He said, looking at Mr. Mint. "I have a bed for each, but you may be much more comfortable on the floor. I'm afraid you would run out of mattress before you ran out of leg. We will make you a pallet on the floor to sleep on. It will be warm before the fireplace." The soldier told them his name was Joe and he used to be a taffy puller for King Kandy before the wars. When the fighting grew worse, he wanted to do his part, so he joined the army. King Kandy spotted him one day as he was helping a street urchin with some food. "He promoted me right there on the street. He said 'Joe, I like what I see. You are now part of my personal guard.' I've been a member of his guard ever since. When King Kandy asked for volunteers to come to patrol the Licorice Forest, I raised my hand high. I've never been afraid of Lord Licorice, and I think what he's done is despicable. My buddy, Bob, and I take shifts patrolling this region. He's in the cabin." They all went in the little licorice house, Mr. Mint ducking to get through the door. When they got in, they saw that the cabin had an extension off the back that hadn't been visible from the road. The front room of the cabin appeared to be the living and dining space, with a fireplace, arm chairs, and a fluffy throw rug to the left, and a dining room table and stove to the right. Cabinets lined every wall. The extension off the back held several bunk beds. Each bed boasted a colorful quilt, not unlike the uniform Joe and Bob wore.
"Hello, and welcome!" a man they assumed must be Bob said. Unlike Big Chew and Joe, his voice did not boom out at them. It was a normal, pleasant voice. Bob wasn't a big man either. He was about Macy's height and slim. The most remarkable thing about him was his shock of bright red hair. It stood up from his head in a chaotic mess. It reminded Anna of someone she had once seen a picture of, a man from a far off place whose name was Albert Einstein. She remembered him because he was credited with developing the theory of relativity, a fascinating subject Macy longed to study for hours on end. She shook Bob's hand.
"Glad to be here and safe," she said. "This is my sister, Anna. Our manservant, Pater Awn. Our friend and guardian of the Peppermint Forest, Mr. Mint. And his companion Starlight." She was beginning to feel as though she could make these introductions in her sleep. "You must be Bob."
"Yes I am, and you must be hungry." Bob smiled in a friendly manner. "We always keep a pot of oatmeal bubbling on the stove. It isn't fancy, but it is filling on these cold nights. It's nice to have something to warm you when you come in from the cold." He showed them where to leave their bags and then invited them to sit around the table. Peter excused himself after the first bowl of oatmeal had been eaten.
"I'll just check with Joe and see how things are looking," he said. He disappeared out the door. A few minutes later, Joe came in.
"Bob, I'm through for the night. You're in." Joe walked over to the stove and dished himself a bowl of oatmeal. He sat at the table and topped his oatmeal with brown sugar and cinnamon, and a generous helping of raisins.
"Is Peter going to stay out there a while?" Anna asked him after he took his first bite.
"Peter? I didn't see him," Joe replied, around his mouthful of oatmeal. That's strange, Anna thought. He said he was going outside to check in with Joe. I wonder where he went. Anna mentally added this oddity to the list she was keeping of Peter's strange behavior. I'll have to find some time to talk to Macy about it tomorrow, she decided. We've got to solve this once and for all.