I knew I was lost when I reached the tree with a hollow in shape of a mushroom. I’d passed it before.
Surrounded by the canopy turning autumn gold, I glare down the path I chose before. How did I wind back here? Now my options are limited. My cell reception is still out, the crossroad looks the same as before, and from the glint on the leaves I surmise the sun is setting. As panic steadily creeps in, I stare at the blasted tree and a thought strikes me.
Some scraping and sweating later, I manage to climb high enough to lift my phone above the branches. But all I can see from my precarious position, neck craned, muscles tensed, is the big crossed O. Still no signal. Desperately, I shake my phone as if that’s somehow going to make it work, but all I do is drop it to the ground. I can see where it landed, but now that I look down, I’m terrified of making another move.
I keep staring at my phone, and, even though I’m paralyzed by fear, something catches my eye. Beside it there’s a shiny circle of yellow and white. Like a round piece of golden jewelry, but with small flecks of light flying all around. I wonder if they’re insects. And why didn’t I see it before climbing? I lower myself slightly for a better look, and then everything moves really fast and then goes dark.
When I wake up, two pairs of eyes are staring down at me. I’m lying on my back on the ground, and it’s almost completely night. I can barely discern the faces above me, but even in the dim light something about them feels off.
“By the Leaves, what did you do?” one asks in a girlish voice. She is much taller than the other and has huge eyes, like a baby or a cartoon.
“Oh my, Elspeth, what are we going to do now?” asks the other. His voice is raspy, he’s squinting and his ears are comically long and flappy.
If I weren’t lying on my back on the cold ground at nighttime with a shooting pain in my leg, I’d find them pretty funny.
“I don’t know, Mr. Gray, I really don’t. What did you do, you big oaf?”
It takes me a beat to realize she’s speaking to me.”
“What – I – I guess I fell from the tree. I think I hurt my leg.” Sure enough, on inspection I see a huge gash peeking from beneath my torn jeans. I feel faint.
“I don’t mean what happened to you, you stupid ogre –”
“Um, Elspeth,” says the smaller one, “please don’t mention ogres in this part of the forest.”
She looks suspiciously around and then continues in a whisper, “You ripped a Golden Mushroom! It’s right there, by your hand. How could you? A Golden Mushroom hasn’t been picked in five centuries!”
There it is, next to my hand, lying in the grass: the most picturesque toadstool I’ve ever seen. Instead of red, it’s golden with spots that sparkle like diamonds. The light reflected by the spots is mesmerizing, and I only slightly wonder what light they’re reflecting, since the sun has set. It must be what I saw from above.
“Well,” Elspeth finally says, “I don’t think there is anything we can do, Mr. Gray, except collect the Golden Wonder and take it to the Heart and Crown.”
“Grab it and let’s go, not a minute to spare.”
Elspeth bends over to where the mushroom is, but she doesn’t seem to get a grasp on it. Wherever she reaches, the mushroom seems to be half a centimeter farther.
After several tries, she straightens and exclaims, “I can’t do it! It’s never where I put my hand. You give it a go, Mr. Gray.”
When the same thing happens to him, he stops and stares at his companion.
Then he looks at me.
“Mister Stranger–Man, if you would be so kind as to endeavor to pick up the Golden Wonder.”
I stare at him blankly.
“The mushroom, sir, if you don’t mind.”
I look at the beautiful thing, still emanating light. I reach for it and soon I’m standing with it in my hand, little slivers of light dancing all over my palm.
“Crap, Mr. Gray,” Elspeth says.
Mr. Gray looks at me with a most insincere smile.
“Mr. Stranger–Man, I conclude that you will be the one to carry the Mushroom to the Crown and Heart. Now, if you’ll please follow us.”
I stare dumbfounded.
“I – what? Who are you people?” I stammer.
“Of course, pardon me, kind sir. This is my traveling companion, Elspeth, and I am Mr. Gray”. Very nice to meet you.”
“But what are you doing in the forest at this hour? And what’s the deal with this mushroom?”
“The deal? What’s the deal with the Mushroom of Kings?” he gesticulates widely, “Why it’s only the -”
“Enough, Mr. Gray,” Elspeth says. “We’re late enough as it is. The night is almost completely upon us, and we cannot linger. Come on, Mr. Stranger, no time to waste.”
“My name,” I say, “is not Mr. Stranger. And I’m not going anywhere with you, you’re both crazy.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Stranger-Man,” she says, “but you have to. Only those who are chosen by the Golden Mushroom may touch it, as you noticed. They are extremely rare, you see, only appearing briefly between sun’s last light and the darkness of night. We were sent to investigate.
Now, I don’t understand how you, clearly a mere human, managed to pluck the Wonder, yet here we are. It must come with us, and since neither of us can touch it, you have to carry it. So please, let’s hurry.”
“Absolutely not.” These people are lunatics, possible drug addicts hiding out in the forest, sleeping in filthy tents and living off berries.
Just as I prepare to walk away, our ears fill with a deep rumble, and panic washes over the childlike faces of Mr. Gray and Elspeth.
The only light source left is the full moon above. By it, I see the branches of the far-off trees rocking left to right, as if shaken by a giant child.
“Ok, Mr. S,” Elspeth says, “no more time for talking. We have to run, now!”
She grabs me by my coat, but I plant my feet firmly.
“I’m not even considering going anywhere with you two! You’re clearly mad. I’ll wait-”
I trail off as the distant rumbling intensifies. Now it sounds more like thundering steps. Like a marching band.
“What is that?” I ask before I can stop myself.
“Who knows?” says Elspeth. “Could be ogres, could be dwarves, or any number of night lurkers intent on killing us. Whether you want to come with us or not, Mr. S, you can’t stay here.”
As I wonder what she meant by ogres and dwarves, could those be rival gangs of druggies?, Mr. Gray has already collected my backpack and is leaving with it.
“Hey, you, bring that back!”
But before I can do anything about my belongings, a roar comes through the trees, so powerful it pushes all three of us to the ground.
“What the hell was that?” I ask.
“Ogres,” says Mr. Gray. “Definitely ogres. Run!”
If the vicious sound and the small man caring off my possessions isn’t enough to make me move, what I see in front of me is.
A giant man-shaped boulder has reached the clearing beneath the mushroom tree. He seems made out of stone, the indiscriminate brownish color of landslides. Yet, he moves almost like a person. He has discernable legs and arms, hands with fingers, and a round rock as a head. The boulder-man is ripping all the branches he can reach and chewing on them.
Before I know it, two hands are pulling me on either side and my legs react instinctively, but we aren’t quick enough. The giant has spotted us, and is quick in pursuit, as quick as a boulder can be. Still, his huge size makes him track ground much faster than us.
We crisscross between the trees for a while, Elspeth’s hand still holding my arm, but then the rumbling intensifies.
“There’s never just one ogre,” Mr. Gray says. “Quick!” He slams into me, and the three of us tumble into the hollow of a giant oak.
As we crouch in the darkness, enveloped by the earthy smell, the monsters thunder past us. I want to leave the hole, but Mr. Gray stops me.
“Please,” he says, “it’s not safe. If not for your own life, think of the Wonder. You must protect it, now that it has chosen you as champion.”
I slide back down.
“You know what,” I say, “I’m getting kind of tired of all this Golden Wonder stuff. Someone better start explaining what’s going on, or I’m taking my chances with the ogres.” I’m scared and confused, and the stinging in my scraped leg is making me crabby, now that the adrenaline is subsiding.
“Right,” says Elspeth, “the Mushrooms select those who would be the Protectors of the forest, and all those who dwell within. The pact is sealed once the chosen one picks them up. But I don’t understand how someone not familiar with the lore of the Wonders could be chosen. I don’t even know where you came from.”
“Where I came from? Where did you come from? Where did ogres come from? The only plausible explanation is that I hit my head hard falling out of the tree.”
“Oh, Elspeth,” intervenes Mr. Gray, “we, um, currently have a slightly bigger problem.”
“Bigger than our chosen Protector having no comprehension of his duties?”
“Um, yes, somewhat bigger.”
He’s crestfallen as he lifts his hand, which he’d used as support.
“Oh no,” Elspeth says.
Mr. Gray’s hand finds a stray moon ray. It’s completely covered in glitter. Immediately my companions shift, trying to exit the hole as fast as possible.
“Come on, Mr. S., hurry.”
“Oh, visitors mustn’t yet leave,” says a high-pitched voice from the darkness of the hollow.
Behind me, where I thought to be a wall of bark, a small light appears, floating towards me. It’s so small and beautiful, like Christmas lights, or the flames of a camp fire. I can’t look away. It reminds me of something, and, before I know it, my hand reaches into my pocket and out comes the Golden Mushroom.
“Put that away, Mr. S.,” says Elspeth, who has crawled back next to me together with Mr. Gray.
“No, no,” says the tiny voice of the light, “show us what you have.”
I mindlessly open my palm to reveal what’s inside.
“Oh,” says the voice, “so beautiful. And it has chosen well, such a Protector, one so strong and brave.”
As the bulb of sparkly light comes closer, I can identify a small female face, floating inside, with pointy nose and ears, and tiny arms and legs, the size of toothpicks. The whole thing, no bigger than a tennis ball.
“Go away, fairy,” says Mr. Gray.
“Oh, no, no, so rude. Talk, Mr. Hoomin. You want to know what has happened to you, yes?”
“No, no,” Mr. Gray says, “he doesn’t want anything from you. Come on, Mr. S., we’re leaving.”
“No. I want to know what’s going on.”
“Very good, Mr. Hoomin. And something in return, yes? Beautiful Mushroom for answers? And the way back, perhaps?”
“You’ll tell me how to get back to reality in exchange for this stupid thing?”
Elspeth and Mr. Gray audibly gasp. The fairy nods.
Behind it, her?, I can see more floating lights, maybe a dozen. Behind them, a dark tunnel is shaping up, leading far beneath the ground. And a barely perceptible buzz fills the air.
“The Mr. Hoomin, comes near the Gate of the Mushroom Tree. The Gate lets in what is must, and also what it cannot stop. The Gate is weaker now, and Mr. Hoomin feels the call of the Wonder. He puts one foot forward, then the other and then he tumbles through the veil, into our side.”
“So, when I fell out of the tree, I landed in a different world?”
“Not different world. Just different side. Cross the Gate again and you’ll be home.”
“Ok, but -”
“Now our turn. Mr. Hoomin gives the Mushroom.”
A dozen pairs of shiny black eyes fixate on me. I realize I’ve grown fond of the little jeweled toadstool, and I don’t know why I agreed to the deal. Before I can do anything, a small, thin hand tries to take it from me, but the fairy reaches just slightly off the mark. Three more fairies fly in, but the result is the same.
Soon, a dozen fairies are flying around me, some vying for the Mushroom, the rest scratching and biting us.
“Mr. S., make for the tunnel!” Mr. Gray says.
The three of us are running down the tree tunnel with a flock of fairies around our heads still trying to get the Mushroom from me, or at least stop us from leaving.
We run for a while down the dark tunnel, and then our pursuers suddenly stop. The small voice shouts behind us.
“Do not forget, Mr. Hoomin, as we will not. You have a debt unpaid.”
“Why did they stop?” I ask, still walking briskly. My leg is throbbing.
“Oh, fairies can’t fly far from their nest. What do you think of this debt business, Mr. Gray?”
“I don’t know, Elspeth. I expect Mr. S. will find out in due course. One thing is certain, though, deals made with fairies cannot be broken.
Now, the good news is this tunnel provides a great shortcut to the hall of Crown and Heart. If we make no false turns.”
In what turns out to be a network of tunnels, light is provided by dimly luminescent roots, tangled above and around us. At each crossroad, Mr. Gray chooses a path, doubles back, chooses again. Once we go down the same path three times and return, only to take it a fourth time.
“What is Crown and Heart?” I ask after we’ve walked a while.
“The rulers of the forest, of course. The Mothers. You’ll be speaking to Crown, as Heart doesn’t usually intervene.”
Finally, we arrive. The tunnel fades off into a hall several stories high. The smell of soil, plants and decay is more powerful here, and roots meshed into the walls are more grouped together, forming a pattern. An almost human pattern.
Across the hall, on two magnificent thrones, sit two women. Slender and elegant, with human features but decidedly not human, I’m captivated by their presence. As we draw closer and I can inspect their faces, their eyes shock me. All color and no whites, one woman green and one black. They both wear crowns.
“Welcome home children,” one says. “Stranger, I am known as Crown. I know what brings you to my hall, but I would like to see the Wonder.”
I take the Mushroom out again, and the light from the diamonds on its top reflect all along the walls. The roots capture and mirror the rays, and we are caught in a dance of stars.
“Yes,” says Crown, “it is true then. You have been marked as Protector of the forest, against your will and knowledge. This is not only an honor and a privilege, but also a duty. You are bound by magical contract to fulfil this position. Unfortunately, as you personally have no magic and no instruction, it will be impossible to acquit yourself of the task, and we shall remain defenseless. I cannot allow that to happen.”
At this, the human shaped roots around the walls catch life and jump to their feet, each with a spear in its hand. The walls remain empty. The light in my palm has dimmed, and Elspeth and Mr. Gray have retreated in the darkness.
“We must force a new selection, and that may happen only once the current Protector is gone.”
“Hey, tell me how to leave this place and I’m as good as gone.”
“I’m afraid that will not be enough. Yours and ours are only different sides of the same world.”
“So I’ve heard.”
The Root-men march on me. Three flank Elspeth and Mr. Gray, who try to come to my rescue, but fail. I’m snatched by two guards who proceed to carry me away. I’m almost out of the hall when I hear a soft, warm voice.
“No,” Heart says. “If the Wonder has chosen a mortal man, then only he can protect us. Only from his side can this forest be saved and kept alive. The struggle of all our peoples will amount to nothing if he cannot protect us from his kin.
Mortal man, you must return home, with this duty in your heart. The Wonder does not make mistakes.”
Her voice trails off, leaving only a vibration in the air. She lifts her arms above her head, and the dance of stars begins again, not only twinkling but spinning around me. Elspeth and Mr. Gray are waiving frantically. The stars spin faster and faster until all goes dark.
It’s morning. I wake up on my back beneath the Mushroom Tree. No one else is there. I check my body of any signs and find everything intact, including my jeans. No toadstool in my pocket or anywhere around me. I take a few steps and I’m prepared to accept last night was only a concussion infused dream. But first I have to check one more thing. I hike my jeans up to my knees, and there it is. A scar running down my shin, now perfectly healed.
I pick up my backpack and prepare to head back home. After all, I have a debt to pay.