Part Seven: The Beast of the Forest
What if the Beast is still out there somewhere in the forest?
There was a long, tense moment of quiet as the gears turned in the bandit leader’s head.
One of the other bandits spoke up. “He might be telling the truth, Arthur. Look at this guy. He’s big, sure, but he’s no Beast.”
“Shut up, Henry,” said the leader. “Let me think.”
“You’re going to be laughed out of town if you bring him to Prince Ted and claim he’s the Beast,” said Jimmy.
The leader was still thinking.
“He’s right,” said Henry.
“Shut it, Henry!” said the leader.
A moment passed and then the leader finally made his decision.
“Grab the boy,” he said.
One of the bandits immediately stepped forward and pulled Jimmy off his horse, letting him drop to the ground.
“Careful!” called Leo.
The bandit yanked Jimmy back up to his feet.
Arthur walked over to Jimmy. This was the first time that Jimmy was able to properly see the leader of the bandits up close. His face was fierce, with fury in his eyes.
“Are you lying to me”? he said.
“I swear,” said Jimmy, “I’m telling the truth. He’s not the Beast.”
Arthur leaned forward so that his face was right in front of Jimmy’s face.
“Because if you are lying, that would mean you’re wasting my time,” he said. “And I don’t like it when people waste my time.”
The bandit’s breath smelt like dead toads.
“It’s true,” said Leo.
The leader turned his head. A gross smile came across his face.
He took Jimmy’s arm and gave him to another bandit to hold.
“Don’t let go,” said the leader to the other bandit.
He left Jimmy and walked back towards Leo.
“At last, he speaks,” said the leader. “So you do have a tongue.”
“I’m not the Beast,” said Leo.
The bandit crouched down over him. “And why, may I ask, did you not care to mention this fact any earlier?”
“I didn’t know the boy was going to keep bugging me,” said Leo. “I wanted to just go along with you so that he could get away.”
The bandit let out a big fake, “Awwww.”
A couple of the others laughed.
“Isn’t that sweet,” said the leader. “My little heart is swelling in my chest. Did you hear that, boy? He was trying to save you. Nice work screwing that up.”
The leader looked back to Leo.
“You see, that’s why I hate kids,” said the bandit. “They don’t know what’s best for them.”
The leader stood up.
“So,” he said. “You both know where the Beast is?”
“He doesn’t,” said Leo. “But I do.”
“And where is he then?”
“Much deeper in the forest. A cave at the base of the mountains.”
A couple of the bandits instantly let out sighs and made protests.
“What rubbish,” said one of them.
“He’s lying,” said another.
“Doesn’t sound like my lads are convinced,” said the leader. “And neither am I. If you ask me, I think you’re trying to lead us on a wild goose chase so you can bide your time until you see an opportunity to escape.”
“I’m telling the truth,” said Leo.
“I’m not even convinced that you’re not the Beast,” said the leader, Arthur. “You’re certainly big enough to be mistaken for him.”
Leo’s face lit up. “I can prove I’m not the Beast.”
“Go on,” said the bandit.
“I have evidence,” said Leo. “Claw marks on the Red Tree. I can show you them.”
Arthur began to pace back and forth, thinking it over.
One of the bandits was still holding Jimmy’s forearm tightly, digging his nails into him. The bandit named Henry who had been the first to believe Jimmy and Leo now made his way over to Jimmy and pulled the other bandit’s hand away.
“That’s enough,” said Henry. “He’s not running off.”
The other bandit sounded his annoyance with a grunt.
Arthur stopped pacing.
He walked over to Leo.
“Get to your feet,” he said.
Leo did as he was told and climbed to his feet.
“Don’t mess me around,” said Arthur. “I promise you that you will regret it if you do.”
He stared Leo down for a moment and then his gross smile returned.
“Let’s go see these claw marks,” he said. “Tie their hands. They lead the way.”
Jimmy and Leo each had their hands tied up with rope. They walked back along the road towards the campfire, followed and flanked by the bandits on their horses.
The morning was beginning to set in. Chaulk clouds filled the sky. A heavy fog covered the forest. As the small party made their way along the narrow road, they could barely see their next step.
“Is it true?” Jimmy whispered. “You’re not actually the Beast?”
“It’s true,” he replied.
“You lied to me,” said Jimmy.
“I was trying to protect you,” said Leo. “I didn’t want you going off deeper into the forest. So much for that...”
Jimmy looked at the trees on either side of the road. He felt an unease returning to him. The knowledge of something out there, no clue how close, no clue how big, no clue how hungry.
They carried on until they reached the old camp. The bandits gathered up all of their things and tied up their horses, leaving the same person behind as last time.
Hands tied, Jimmy and Leo walked ahead of the four bandits. It was difficult to navigate the dense forest in the fog. If they were ever too slow the bandits would shove them along and tell them to hurry up.
Finally, they reached the opening. Leo led the way around to the back of the Red Tree.
And there it was, his proof... Five claw marks slashed across the trunk of the tree.
“What now?” said one of the bandits.
The leader’s voice was severe. “We find the Beast.”
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