Once they had eaten breakfast, tidied up the tower, and refilled their water flasks at the well, Chris and Darren headed out along the path to the Charming Kingdom. By midmorning they came to a stone bridge spanning a stream. The moment their feet touched the first stone, there was a terrible snarling noise, and something – or someone – clambered up from under the bridge and blocked their path.
Chris clutched onto Darren, trying not to laugh. “Oh my god, this is actually perfect – Sandy Ryerson is the bridge troll!”
“Yeah – creepy, drug-dealing pedophile. Don’t you remember him from seasons 1 and 2?”
The bridge troll waved his arms menacingly and shouted, “No one crosses my bridge without answering a riddle!”
“No problem. We’re good at riddles.”
“Well, you’d better be. Because you only get one guess. And if you’re wrong, I’m going to eat you,” he growled, eyes raking up and down their bodies in a disturbingly suggestive manner.
Chris inched closer to Darren and whispered, “Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. We only have one shot, so we have to think this through. Okay?”
With a leer, the bridge troll intoned, “I have a stiff shaft. My tip penetrates. I come with a quiver. What am I?”
“Oh my god,” Darren blurted out. “You are such a pervert! What are you doing in a world of children’s stories?”
“You think you know the answer to my riddle, Mr. Dirty Mind?” the bridge troll sneered. “Go ahead and say it, then.”
“Wait!” Chris cried, slapping a hand over Darren’s mouth. “Let me think… A stiff shaft… a tip that penetrates… comes with a quiver… I’ve got it – an arrow!”
“Hmph! You’re no fun,” the bridge troll groused. But he did stand aside to let them pass.
Chris and Darren skipped across the bridge, knocking their shoulders together and laughing. “Who’s the pervert now?” Chris teased. “I see where your mind went.”
“Hey! That guy was so skeevy, you know that’s what he was aiming at.”
“Yeah, well, at least I kept my mind out of the gutter long enough to get us across the bridge.”
“Oh, you act all pure and innocent, but I know better, Colfer. You were thinking exactly the same thing I was.”
Chris just raised an eyebrow. They continued along the path in companionable silence, punctuated by occasional bursts of laughter whenever one happened to give the other a knowing look.
The path wound through woods and fields, with the scenery becoming more and more lovely the further Chris and Darren traveled into the Charming Kingdom. They passed the time alternately singing, chatting, or simply looking around in wonder. They walked on and on all day, stopping only to eat more of the food that Froggy had given them. By the time it started to get dark, they were both worn out.
“Why did I have to make everything here so big?” Chris grumbled. “The wolves are too big, the Charming Kingdom is too big, even Froggy was too big. Why couldn’t I just have put Cinderella’s palace an easy, two-hour stroll away from Rapunzel’s tower?”
Darren sighed. “Let’s try to find a safe place to sleep,” he suggested. “I’m beat.”
They left the path and headed for a small cluster of trees. In the center of the trees they found a lovely little meadow, dotted with wildflowers. They lay down on their backs on the thick, soft grass, wrapping themselves up in the wool blanket Froggy had provided, and pillowing their heads on the sheepskin satchel.
Chris closed his eyes, overwhelmed by fatigue. He was almost asleep when he heard Darren’s voice murmuring his name.
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this… but I’m really glad you’re here with me.”
Chris turned to face Darren and snuggled a little closer, wrapping an arm around his friend. “I’m glad you’re here with me, too,” he said, just before he drifted off to sleep.
Chris and Darren awoke to a chorus of birds greeting the early morning light that filtered through the leaves of the trees. There was a bit of a chill in the air, and neither man was eager to leave the warmth of their blanket.
“How much further do you think we’ll have to walk before we get to Cinderella’s palace?” Darren asked, yawning.
“I’m not sure. In my book, I had the twins run into a guy named Smithers who was bringing firewood to the palace, and he gave them a ride in his cart. With any luck, maybe we’ll meet up with him this morning.”
“That would be great. I’ve always enjoyed hiking, but if we have to do another sixteen-hour day I think my legs are going to fall off.”
“Awww, are your poor little hobbit-legs getting worn out trying to keep up with me?”
“Shut up, you freak of nature!” Darren cried, tickling him. “What kind of pact did you have to make with the devil to get to grow six inches after you turned twenty?”
“Oh, you do not want to start a tickle fight with me, mister!” Chris warned, sneaking his cold fingers under Darren’s shirt in retaliation. “Anyway, it wasn’t the devil. My army of fourteen-year-old fangirls claims it was the Puberty Fairy.”
Darren tried to respond with a witty comeback, but he was laughing too hard to get the words out. Chris kept tickling him mercilessly until he finally gasped out, “Stop… stop… you’re going to make me pee myself!”
Chris relented, with a “Fine, you big baby. But I’m just letting you off the hook this time because this is our only blanket. If you ever start another tickle battle, you’re going down.”
Darren regained his breath and walked off to relieve himself behind a tree, while Chris got their breakfast ready. When Darren returned, Chris told him, “We’re running low on food. We’ll have to stop at a market once we reach civilization.”
“Or what passes for it here.”
“I put Cinderella’s palace in a good-sized town. I just hope it’s still there.”
“Well, you said that so far only the characters seem to have changed, not the setting. Which I have to say I’m glad about. I think it would be awfully disturbing if we suddenly wandered into Lima, Ohio.”
“Although it would probably be a lot easier to get home. And at least we’d have cell service.”
“You know, I haven’t missed my phone at all since we’ve been here. It’s weird, but I’m kind of enjoying having a little vacation from technology.”
“Me too. I’m always working on so many things at once; I guess it’s good for me to be forced to take a break.”
As Chris and Darren finished up their breakfast, they heard the sound of distant hoof beats. Returning to the path, they saw a cart approaching. It was pulled by a gray horse, and driven by the strangest looking man Chris had ever seen. His skin was crayon-yellow, and he had an odd, two-dimensional appearance.
“That doesn’t look like anyone from my book… or anyone from Glee,” Chris said, staring in confusion as the man drew nearer.
Darren’s mouth dropped open in shocked recognition. “It’s Smithers.”
“But why is he so weird looking? I just wrote him as an ordinary man.”
“It’s Smithers,” Darren repeated. “You know, from The Simpsons. Mr. Burns’ assistant, Smithers.”
“Oh my god. Are you telling me he’s a cartoon character?”
“Well, he sure looks like one. Come on, let’s flag him down and get a ride to the palace.”