There was a cart and horse outside the shed. It was the first horse we’d seen. It looked like a regular horse, no wings or horns. Soldiers were piling sacks and boxes into the back while Grayson watched. He saw us approach and his eyebrows rose.
“Ah, you’re back. Looks like you’ve been busy. What have you got there?”
We dumped the bodies in front of him.
“First, I want to ask you about this.” I took the bunnicorn horn out of one of the sacks and showed it to him. He jerked back like I was offering him a severed penis.
“Why,” he asked, “are you holding that severed penis?”
I looked down at my hand. “No, this is a horn from a rabbit.”
“Yes,” said Grayson, “a rabbit penis. When it’s their mating season, they incubate inside an ogre and come out with the horn.”
I stared at the thing in my hand unable to work out what to do with it. How do you dispose of a severed penis? If I had access to the internet, I’m sure I’d have thirty million search results to that question.
“But they all had them. There weren’t any females.” That’s all I could think, still trying to convince myself I wasn’t holding a cock in my hand.
“They are both male and female. Once they get the horn, they form a circle and, well, I won’t go into the details. I wouldn’t carry that around if I were you. You’ll scare the children.”
I turned around and threw it as hard as I could. It sailed over the buildings and out of sight. I turned back and pretended the last few minutes had never happened.
“Can you have a look at these and tell us if we did the right thing?” I pointed at the mice.
He bent down and unwrapped the cloth over the male mouse’s face. He stared at me open-mouthed. “You did this?”
He rushed towards me, grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “Well done, my boy, well done. You have done us a great service.”
“We have?” I was relieved he saw it as a good thing, but a little confused at the enthusiasm of his response.
“This isn’t just an ordinary mouse warrior—although that would have been a worthy achievement too—this is their king. Every nest only has one breeding pair, the mouse king and its mate. You can kill off all their warriors, and this little monster will repopulate the colony in a few weeks. They’re incredibly hard to kill. They stay hidden most of the time.”
He bent down and undid the other mouse’s wrapping. “And you got the female too! This is wonderful.”
He pulled apart the cloth until the female was fully exposed. Seeing her lifeless body again put a knot in my stomach and I turned to the others. They were all avoiding looking at it. Grayson, on the other hand, poked the body with a gleeful look on his face.
“Seems like you got her just in time. She was pregnant. A few days at most before she would have birthed a litter of at least four or five.”
The new arrivals the mice had been expecting weren’t reinforcements from some other nest, it was their babies.The tightness in my stomach fell away, like I was going downhill on a rollercoaster. My throat constricted so my voice sounded strange to my ears.
“We didn’t know.” A cold shiver ran through me and sweat broke out on my face.
Grayson looked up at me. “There’s no need to be shocked. These weren’t babes you need to regret ridding us of. In six months they would have grown into mature males. There’s only one breeding pair in the nest, so the males find their jollies elsewhere. That means they kidnap young girls from places like this town and use them to satisfy their urges. We sometimes find the bodies, or what’s left of them. Let me tell you, you should be enormously proud of yourselves.”
I was still reeling from what he’d said. Even though he made a compelling case for killing them, I still couldn’t get rid of the feeling we had done something horrific. Claire had her hand over her mouth. Flossie’s mouth was grinning, but her eyes were filled with desperation. Dudley, as usual, found solace in the skies. And Maurice, who had been the one to kill the female, stared at the ground, his shoulders slumped. No one felt proud.
“Come with me,” said Grayson as he stood up. “I need to give you your reward. Fenner, go tell the Mayor the mouse king has been killed. Jerrick, Carten, put the bodies in the cart, we’ll take them with us.”
The soldiers all rushed into action as we followed Grayson into the shed in a daze.
Grayson headed over to the desk and opened a drawer. He took out a bunch of books.
“The bounty on the king is substantial. I don’t have enough money here, but I can give you a chit you can cash in when you get to the city.”
“Bounty?” I said.
“Mm? Oh, yes.” Grayson walked over to the curtain and pulled it open.
The wall was covered in posters. Each had a picture of a creature on it, some writing I couldn’t understand and a number. They were wanted posters. Each was a different colour. I Iooked over at the map on the other wall and noticed for the first time that parts of it were in different colours. By matching the colours of the posters to the map, you could tell where each creature could be found.
I couldn’t take it all in. What did it mean? Why hadn’t he told us about this?
The poster with a mouse on it had the number 100 on it.
“The mouse is worth a 100 chobs?” I asked.
Grayson opened one of the books and started writing in it. “Oh no. A regular mouse warrior is 100 bits. But the mouse king, that’s a special reward. 500 bits.”
After scrabbling around trying to get a few chobs together, suddenly we had 500 bits.
“And then there’s the female. That’s another 300. Plus she’s pregnant, that’s another 500. All together, that’s 1300 bits. All I have is a hundred bits left, your friends cleaned me out I’m afraid, but if you take this and hand it in at the Municipal Directory—every city has one—they’ll be able to convert it into cash for you.” He ripped the page out of the book and handed it to me.
It had some words on it, his signature, and the number 1200. He then put ten red coins in a small pouch and gave it to me.
I took them from him, but I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing. I kept looking at all the different posters.
“I don’t understand. Why didn’t you tell us about this before? When you first explained everything, you could have said something.”
“I know it may seem unnecessarily unhelpful, but experience has shown us that the best way to help visitors like yourselves is to let you search for answers rather than just giving them to you. If we offer too much assistance, you’ll become dependent on us. This is the way it’s been for a hundred years—the system works, trust me. Your friends were able to figure things out. You’re group was, ah, a little slow getting there. But here you are.”
“Slow?” The numbness had dissipated. All I felt now was rage. “Of course we were slow. Look at us! We didn’t ask to come here. You forced us to do horrible things and then kept information from us to make it even harder.”
“I’m sorry. I have my orders.”
The old ‘I was just following orders excuse’. This world really wasn’t all that different to ours. I pointed at the posters. “Can you at least tell us what they say?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. Another thing you need to work out. I can, however give you this.” He gave me one of the books on his desk.
I opened it. There were pictures in it. An apple on the first page, a ball on the second, a cat on the third… a basic kid’s learn to read book.
“We don’t have time to learn your language now. Just read them for us.”
Grayson shook his head. “That’s not how it works.”
I stepped up to him, hardly able to contain myself. “Just fucking do it.”
He didn’t move. His face showed no signs of caring about my demands. Until, that is, he felt the sword poking him in the stomach.
Wait. Sword? Where did I get a sword? I was wondering that myself, but I definitely had a sword in my hand. It was Grayson’s, and I had taken it from its scabbard without him realising. And without me realising either.
I had seen Grayson in action. He was strong and fast, and knew how to handle himself. If he had sensed me going for his weapon, I have no doubt he’d have been able to stop me. But he didn’t see it coming because I had no idea I was going to do it. My body did it without my permission, and you can’t read a person’s intention if they don’t have any.
Grayson’s face didn’t have that irritating smile on it for once. For a pro like him to get disarmed by a noob must have been infuriating. He was probably planning six different ways to kill me, but I was all in and it was too late to worry about little things like dying.
I pointed at the wall of posters. “Read.”