Robin paused in his walk through the woods, startled by an unfamiliar vista of trees and flowers in a place that was so familiar he could walk it blindfold: these trees were much older than any he'd ever seen, gnarled and twisted with intertwining canopies and vines around their trunks as thick as their branches; the wildflowers were strange, jewel-bright and too profuse in the soft mast of dead leaves and fresh moss; even the light was filtered differently, more gold than green, almost as if the seasons had changed.
He felt as if he'd been transported to some other place and time, disoriented and a little afraid; but looking behind him he could see the familiar sort of trees in the distance, and knew he'd only stumbled somehow into a part of the wood he'd never been in before -- unlikely and unexpected, he was so sure that he'd covered all there was of this wood long ago, but more likely and expected than magical transportation across dimensions.
Walking further along between the trees -- there was no path here, but the ground was firm and even beneath the carpet of mast -- Robin took in the beauty of the place, marveling at the thickness of the trees, the perfection of the flowers, and the exquisite golden light; eventually he got so deep that he couldn't see the newer part of the wood anymore. Despite the beauty of the place, though, the feeling of fear and disorientation persisted, intensifying into a little spurt of panic when he realized he could no longer see the way by which he'd come, couldn't even quite tell in which direction he was walking.
He came into a broad circular clearing so perfect that it looked like an illustration from a fantasy book, and sat down on the bole of a tree that had fallen down some centuries ago but continued to grow sideways, making a comfortable bench for the weary hiker. He tried to let the golden light and the ancient woodsy smell soothe him, but his heart was thumping and he'd broken out in a sweat. He drank some water from the bottle in his pocket, and then unwrapped a bar of Belgian chocolate, hoping the rich sweetness would calm him.
Robin pulled a pocketwatch out of the breast-pocket of his hacking jacket (part of his rather studied tweed country-walk costume from Poole & Co. that included a Fair Isle turtleneck and leather gaiters) and consulted the compass in its back to reorient himself; but the compass needle swung lazily back and forth, occasionally turning a full circle, rather than pointing north as it was supposed to do. The watch appeared to be running wrong, too, the second-hand advancing irregularly and perhaps too slowly. Robin wound the watch tighter and shook it vigorously, but it did not right itself.
Returning the watch to its pocket, Robin sat and studied the clearing, and was startled into a stifled yelp when he saw a deer standing on the opposite side of the open space, a magnificently antlered stag staring at him with a disdainful sort of curiosity. Robin knew that the whole wood was crammed with deer, which had to be culled annually, and he frequently spotted the elegant creatures on his walks, but they always darted shyly away; he tried to tell himself that though bucks are substantially more dangerous than does or fawns, it was not mating season so the beast was unlikely to be aggressive; but the way this obvious king of the forest regarded him as one might regard a skunk in one's garden, not liking it there but not wanting to go near enough to harm it, made Robin feel even more uneasy.
The deer walked off eventually, so Robin breathed a sigh of relief and got up to leave the clearing. He crossed the open space in a meandering path, not sure which way he should go to get home by the shortest route; without a compass, and his own sense of direction simply gone, he changed his mind several times before he realized that the midsummer sun slanting across the clearing would obviously be slanting east-to-west since it wasn't yet noon. Squaring his shoulders, he took a more purposeful stride toward a gap in the trees with the sun at his back.
The ancient trees closed around him, the ground humped and buckled more than before he'd entered the clearing, so it was slow going; the sensation of being watched persisted, too, sending chills up his back as he imagined that majestic stag tracking him through the wood, waiting for him to enter a small enough space that a many-pronged antler could do the most damage.
Robin groaned miserably when he entered that same clearing again -- he was certain he'd been heading steadily westward, not doubling around in a wide circle -- consulting his watch again, he wondered if it had been running backward, it can't have been only twenty minutes since he left the clearing. But if his watch was wrong and it was actually after noon, he'd been going the wrong way all along. Crossing the clearing again, Robin stumbled on an enormous stone in the very center of the clearing, grown around with tall grasses and scraggly ancient rose-bushes.
The stone was something like a table, only a few inches off the ground but with space underneath for tiny people or animals to sit at, or perhaps it had sunk and once had space for full-sized people to sit at it. There was a sort of pattern carved in the top, but much worn and smoothed by weather so that it could no longer be discerned beyond a vague impression of Celtic knots. Robin wished he had his camera with him, or even his mobile -- of course, if he'd had his mobile he could've called someone to come get him, possibly with a helicopter -- and resolved to come back some time with the proper equipment to record the existence of this remarkable tablet.
Working on the assumption that it was after noon and the sun was slanting west-to-east, Robin reentered the wood and found the way much easier, the enormous old trees a little more evenly spaced so that the sunlight filtered through the canopy better, and though it seemed like an hour had passed he did eventually find the trees getting younger and then suddenly he was on a well-worn path that he knew quite well. Marking the tree where the ancient way met the familiar path with the gold foil wrapper of his chocolate bar so that he could find the entrance again, he set off at a trot toward home.
The forest spat him out in the east meadow, behind the stables, and he jogged across its overgrown grassy expanse with a sense of relief, though he found himself entirely breathless by the time he reached the stables--Robin was only thirty-eight, soon to be thirty-nine, but aside from his weekend rambles in the forest he was a fairly sedentary man, and the extra long hike followed by a brisk jog winded him.
Robin trudged slowly past the stables, enjoying the sound of horses and grooms inside the Victorian brick quadrangle; he didn't ride much, himself, but had maintained the stables as his father had left them, stocked with two dozen animals and three live-in employees, simply because he didn't know what else to do with them.
Passing through the wall of untrimmed yews that screened the stables from the house, Robin picked up his pace again, wanting suddenly but very badly to be indoors. The big yellow-beige stone mass of Wanderwood Manor stood grandly upon the rippled mirror of its moat, a picturesque Tudor mansion bristling with gables and chimneys, turrets and oriels thrusting out all over it, anchored to the brutish thrust of the big Norman tower that formed its gatehouse.
Thundering across the heavy wooden drawbridge through the wide portcullised arch that led to the broad inner courtyard, Robin darted through the closest door to hand, a small lancet-arched