“Colin!” screamed Claire like she was delighted to see me. “We’re back!”
“Sorry about leaving you like that,” said Maurice. “We didn’t think we’d be gone so—”
“Yeah, they said it was only a day away, we thought we’d be back in no—”
“Then they forced us to go to all these parties an—”
“They made us these clothes too,” said Flossie, holding out her leather top from the hem. “Right bostin’ they are.”
“We met the head guy, the Vizier,” said Maurice. “He was some kind of giant badger! He might have been a wolverine, but he didn’t have claws.”
“They had cake!” said Flossie. “It were great.”
“We tried to send a message,” cut in Claire, “but their post office is really strange.”
“We got you this.” Flossie held out a cloak for me. I took it and put it under my arm.
They were all talking over each other and coming at me so fast it was hard to take it all in.
“We thought you could probably do with a few days without us,” said Claire. “You know, have a little me time.”
“Thank you for thinking of me.” I didn’t mean it sarcastically, but it still brought them up a bit short. It slowly dawned on them there was a strange atmosphere around us.
“You aren’t mad at us are you?” asked Flossie.
“No,” I said. “You did nothing wrong.”
The only one not to say anything was Jenny. She stood staring at me. “What happened, Colin?”
“Oh, you know, stuff.”
She walked up to me, her eyes searching my face, like she was looking for something. Then she looked past me at the crowd gathered around Vamalyn. “What did you people do?” Her voice shook.
I placed my hand on Jenny’s shoulder. “It’s fine. They didn’t do anything. The only person who fucked up was me. Isn’t that right, Vamalyn?”
Vamalyn hesitated before he spoke. “We could all have handled the situation a little better, perhaps.”
“Yes,” I said. “Perhaps.”
“Colin,” said Jenny, “please tell me what happened. I’ve never seen you in this much pain before.”
I found her words confusing. “I’m not in any pain. Can’t feel a thing, to be honest with you.”
I turned to Keezy who was standing by the carriage, looking with concern at the gathered monsters. His skin had healed completely and he looked like a giant rock once more. The Worm King stood next to him.
“We had a deal,” I said to Keezy. “You promised to take us back.”
“Yes, we were talking about that on the journey here. We thought—”
“I don’t care.” It was hard to keep the edge of my voice. I wasn’t in much of a mood to have a discussion. “I saved your brother’s life. I made him into the Worm King. I went with you to find him in the dark. If you no longer wish to acknowledge your debt, that’s fine—you won’t be the first person to let me down– I’d just like to know if you’re going to keep your word or not?”
Keezy didn’t say anything. He just looked at me for what seemed like several minutes, although it was probably a couple of seconds. Then his gaze passed over my head and swept across the watching gallery which appeared to have swelled in number.
“We can leave first thing in the morning,” he said.
I turned around towards Vamalyn and everyone behind him flinched. It would be nice to think I was this terrifying figure who could make even monsters cower, but they weren’t afraid of me in the conventional sense. It was more like a guy with a plank on his shoulder who suddenly pivots without realising there’s someone behind him.
“I think they’d rather we left right now,” I said. “Isn’t that right, Vamalyn?”
Vamalyn said nothing.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Shall we? I just have to pick up my stuff. It isn’t far.” I set off without waiting to see if anyone was following.
Once I crossed the village boundary the darkness closed in and I created a ball of light. I was now proficient enough to make it with hardly any effort and have it hang over my head as I walked. I felt like I had only scratched the surface of what was possible with magic, but the really powerful stuff seemed to be out of my reach. Or at least, out of my control.
The others traipsed along behind me, their conversations muted and too low for me to hear. The three trolls also followed. Having the Worm King along would make things a little less dangerous, assuming it meant the jabberwocky would avoid us.
When I got back to my tent I realised there wasn’t very much for me to take. I packed up the tent and took the spear Attica had given me. It wasn’t a particularly good one—the head was made of stone sharpened to a point—but it might come in useful one day. I could always throw it away if it became a burden.
“You are sure you want to go back across the border?” Keezy asked me.
“Yes. You know, I used to think the person who named Monsterland was some kind of retard. ‘Oh look, monsters, let’s call it Monsterland.’Right? But now I see he was a genius. I’m half-tempted to go back to Gullen and offer to help him kill every last one of you.”
I’m not sure why I felt compelled to goad Keezy, other than the perverse pleasure of pissing someone off just because you can.
Keezy bristled a little but kept his composure. He looked at his brother , then back at me. “I owe you a debt. Once it is paid, you would do well not to cross my path again.”
His words felt familiar. I shrugged. “Is it far, wherever it is we’re going?”
“Two, maybe three days,” said Keezy. “We could rest here but, no, I can see you’re in no mood to tarry. And perhaps it would be best to put as much distance between you and the village as possible.”
Keezy led us around the other side of the lake and away from the border. Open fields made the going easy if a little monotonous.
“I’m sorry,” said Jenny. She had taken up position beside me.
“Sorry? Sorry for what?”
“For leaving you on your own. I… We got carried away after killing the jabberwock. We didn’t stop to think. It was inconsiderate. No, it was more than that. After you refused to come with us into that thing, it was like you had no faith in us. We wanted you to feel rejected the way you made us feel. It was mean. I don’t know what happened while we were gone, but I know it must have been terrible. I’m sorry you had to face it by yourself.”
“It’s not your job to look out for me. And you were right, I don’t have faith in you, in any of you. If that bothers you, you were right to leave me behind. I’m surprised you came back, to be honest.”
Jenny lowered her head.
I stopped and turned to look at the others. They all froze like guilty children with chocolate smeared around their mouths.
“It’s obvious you guys can handle yourselves now. You should seriously consider what you want to do once we get back. I don’t think any of you want to go where I’m headed.”
“Ah want us all to be togethaaah,” said Flossie in a plaintive whine.
“You will be together,” I said. “With each other. You don’t need me.” I turned back around and followed the trolls.
We walked through the night without incident. Having the trolls as our bodyguards probably helped. With the sunrise came our first proper look at where we were. The wide, unbroken plain stretched out in all directions like the African savannah. Far in the distance there was a range of mountains which I assumed was where we were headed.
“Couldn’t you just dig a tunnel under the border?” I asked Keezy.
“So is it some kind of magical teleportation device you’re taking us to?”
Since I was getting nowhere with him I decided to question the others about their trip to the city.
What I wanted to ask was if they had found out anything that I would be interested in that didn’t involve cake recipes. However, that sort of mildly passive-aggressive questioning would only unsettle them and make them reluctant to talk.
I decided for a more direct approach. “Did you find out anything about this Cheng guy while you were running around stuffing your faces and living the high life?” I didn’t say I was going to be warm and friendly.
“Nobody had a bad thing to say about him,” said Claire. “They weren’t scared, I think they all see him as a great leader.”
“I asked Vizier Yogo what Cheng looked like and all he said was, ‘Magnificent’.”
“What about all the soldiers who disappeared from the fort, did you find out what happened to them?”
They looked at each other, and then shook their heads.
“Or the lizardmen around Fengarad, any idea what the plan is there?”
More head shaking. They really had gone off on a jolly. I wasn’t mad at them for wasting such an obvious opportunity, I was as much to blame as them. If I wanted them to act in a certain way I should have trained them better, rather than not at all.
Jenny was right to some extent. When she said I was the leader and I should lead, it wasn’t just about taking my rightful place at the head of table, it was just as much to do with instilling in them the correct values to do the job I needed them to do. If I wanted them to act in a certain way, I needed to take the time and effort to teach them. Assuming they’d figure it out for themselves because it was obvious was stupid of me.
I was starting to see that a lot of my problems were caused by my own refusal to do the things I found difficult.
We stopped mid-morning by a stream. The trolls showed no signs of fatigue but the others looked a bit worn down. Maurice began rolling up his trouser legs as he prepared to catch us something to eat. It reminded me of Attica’s amazing ability to lure fish. I absentmindedly wandered closer to the water and raised my hand. As I made the finger movements, three fish leapt out of the water and landed at my feet, flopping about.
I was quite surprised. My teammates stared at me open-mouthed. I tried it again but it didn’t work.
“Who taught you how to do that?” asked Maurice.
I opened my mouth but no words came out. I couldn’t speak. I sort of shrugged and went to start a fire.
Healing, creating light, fresh fish… I was becoming quite the utility player. Any group would be happy to have me in their ranks, if it wasn’t for my personality, obviously.
After we ate I decided we should take a break so everyone could catch their breath a bit. I wandered off to take care of my toilet needs and then went down to the stream to wash up. There was a green area behind some rocks where the ground was strangely spongy. I think it was moss. I lay down on it and stared up at the sky. It was the same blue as the sky back home. You’d never know you were in an alien world by looking at it. A cloud drifted by. It looked like nothing in particular, just a cloud.
“Do you think he’s going to be okay?” It was Claire’s voice, not very far away.
“I don’t know,” said Jenny. “We fucked up pretty bad. I wouldn’t blame him if he went off on his own when we get back.”
“Maybe that would be for the best,” said Claire.
“No. It wouldn’t. Not for him and not for us. Not for me, anyway. He’s in so much pain, Claire. Every time I’m near him I can feel it coming off him in waves. It’s eating him alive.”
I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. I didn’t feel like I was being eaten alive.
“Ah think you should sleep with him,” said Flossie. I was a bit surprised by how direct she was. Not how she was around the guys.
“Really?” said Jenny somewhat sarcastically. “You think that would solve everything?”
“Ah think you’ve been fookin’ dancin’ around each other for weeks. It’s obvious you like each other. If he felt he had someone who cared about him, he wouldn’t hurt so much.”
“You do like him, don’t you?” asked Claire.
There was a pause. I was concentrating very hard so I didn’t miss the answer, as you might expect.
“Yes, of course, I like him. But I don’t know if I likehim. I don’t know. He’s always pushed me away, right from the beginning. It’s easy to be attracted to something you can’t have. I wouldn’t want to get involved and then lose interest once I got what I wanted. That would only make things worse.”
“Christ,” said Claire, “you even think like him.”
“Fookin’ made for each other.”
“Who gives a shit if it doesn’t work out?” said Claire. “It’s worth the risk. It’s always worth the risk. Because what if it doeswork out? It’s so great to have someone you can count on.”
“Yeah,” said Flossie.
“As long as you feel some kind of attraction… Do you?”
There was an even longer pause. “It’s not like I want to kiss him or touch him whenever I see him. I don’t have dreams about having sex with him.”
“Oh,” said Claire.
“Ah,” said Flossie.
So, there you go. All of you who thought I was a shoo-in and should have jumped her bones earlier, now you can see why my reluctance to take the plunge was the right way to go. Sure, we could have had some sort of halfhearted fling and for a lot of guys that would be more than enough to make up for any awkwardness to follow, but I’d never be able to cope with something like that.
Knowing how she felt was a relief. And I even got the news at the best time possible. I complain a lot about the universe fucking me over, but here was an example of the universe cutting me a break. Yes it was cruel and disappointing, but what better time to be told than when I was completely numb to all emotion? Now that’s what I call lucky.
Another cloud drifted overhead. The way it was longer at one end, with two balls sticking out, it reminded me of the first cloud.
I gave it a few minutes so they had time to leave, then I got up and returned. I wouldn’t say I felt cheerful, but it did feel like a weight had been lifted.
We spent the rest of the day plodding towards the mountains. Keezy refused to divulge any details about where we were going or how it would enable us to get back to Flatland, but I saw no reason to doubt him.
Once it got dark we could have kept going but it seemed wiser to pace ourselves. We set up camp and I put up my tent. The others didn’t have any camping equipment but it was a warm night and we had a big fire, so it wasn’t like they’d die of hypothermia.
Putting the tent up without Attica’s help was a pain, but I managed. I crawled in and collapsed. Sleep would have been nice but I just lay there listening to the sound of the others talking.
After a while there was the sound of someone coming into the tent.
“Are you okay?” asked Jenny.
“Do you want to talk about what happened back at the village while we were gone?”
I felt a hand on my back. I quickly rolled away and sat up. “What are you doing?”
Jenny seemed surprised by my sudden reaction to what was a simple pat on the back. “Nothing. I was just trying to comfort you.”
“Okay. But please don’t. I know for most people it’s no big deal, a back rub, a hug, whatever, but when you’re not used to people showing you affection it can lead to misunderstandings. Obviously you don’t feel like that about me, which is fine, understandable even, but it’s still hard to deal with for someone like me.”
I felt I had put it out there very maturely. I accepted her lack of interest but it wasn’t really fair to get all touchy feely and whatnot.
Jenny stared at me. “How do you know I don’t feel like that about you?”
“I heard you talking to Flossie and Claire.” She seemed taken aback by this. “Honestly, it’s fine. I’m glad I found out before I got my hopes up or anything. Would have made things awkward. This way at least—”
Jenny leaned in and kissed me on the mouth. It felt nice. Soft and warm, like I suppose a kiss is supposed to feel.
I responded instinctively. I slapped her.
“Colin!” screamed Claire like she was delighted to see me. “We’re back!”