Margi looked out the window over the sink. “Oh, I can see my boys. Perhaps I should show you the barn now. Once the boys get here, I won’t have time to do anything but shovel more food at them. You want to see some real appetites, you don’t see them bigger than my boys’.” She beamed with pride.
She led us out to the barn, which was full of bales of straw. Ladders led up to a loft, and the place had a comforting smell to it. Like summer in the park.
“Oh, and another thing,” said Margi. “That little shed we passed on the way here, that’s the outhouse. Feel free to use it when you need to take care of your business.”
The kid in her arms finally spoke. “Poo poo.”
We were left to settle in and everyone flopped down on the bouncy straw. Compared to sleeping on the ground, this was like a bed of clouds. Full of food and feeling safe for once, we lay there revelling in the luxury of not having to fear for our lives. Once the farmer returned, we might even be able to get a lift into the city. It seemed too good to be true. Which, of course, it was.
The warmth in my stomach shifted downwards. I struggled to my feet and decided to give the outhouse a visit. As I walked out of the barn, I could hear voices drifting across from the farmhouse. I couldn’t make out any words, but the occasional hooting laugh made it sound like a jovial get together.
The outhouse was the size of a garden shed, the kind you can just about fit a wheelbarrow and lawnmower into. There was a trough of water beside it where you could even wash your hands. All the mod cons.
I opened the door expecting the usual hole in the ground, but was stunned to find an actual toilet, with a wooden seat. There was no flush, so it was probably just a deep hole with a chair over it, but it felt like I’d just walked into the penthouse suite of some fancy hotel.
There was even toilet paper! Well, a stack of dried leaves, but they really felt smooth and soft. I sat there, enjoying the near normality, when the sound of water splashing told me someonewas probably washing their hands in the trough. I then overheard the following conversation:
“Aw, you lazy bums. You still not got that tree stump out the top field? What’re you like?”
“What you mean, lazy? That’s damn hard work. I’d like to see you try.”
“Yeah, Jarrad, we really be putting our backs into it.”
“Three days you been at it. Lazy is right.”
There seemed to be three speakers, all young men.
“You can shut your mouth! My hands are ruined from pulling on that rope. Why can’t we use one of the horses to help?”
There was the sound of someone being slapped.
“Because Da’s taken the horses to the city, you dimwit. You expect him to pull the wagon his self? You better get finished with that stump by this afternoon, or there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Aw, I’m so tired. We haven’t had a break in forever. When we gonna have some fun, Jarrad?”
“Oh, it’s fun you want, is it? Well you can forget about it. I told you some visitors killed the Mouse King, didn’t I? Until a new mouse colony moves in, we don’t do anything. We can’t have people wondering where their girls have gone if there aren’t any mice to blame.”
“A new mouse colony? Aw, Jarrad, that could take years.”
“It might. Or a few months. You can never tell with them mousey bastards. In the meantime, you both keep your mouths shut while these visitors are staying with us.”
“Do you think they’re the ones who killed the Mouse King?”
“Nah, according to Ma, these are real green. She says they have a couple of girls with them, though.”
“Really? Are they young?”
“Hold your horses, now. Let’s see what the men are like first. Don’t want to start any trouble if they look like they can handle themselves.”
“We can take care of them, Jarrad. Come on, I need my fun.”
“You can always go back to shagging chickens—hur, hur, hur.”
“Shut your mouth. That was only the once.”
“Sure, sure it was.”
The voices drifted off as they moved away. I sat there, trousers around my ankles, sweat pouring down my face, feeling incredibly lucky. Lucky that they hadn’t noticed my presence on the other side of the thin wooden wall, and lucky that I was in the perfect place to shit myself.
I waited a few seconds to makes sure they really had gone, then I snuck out and returned to the barn. I immediately got my stuff together and prepared to leave.
“What are you doing?” asked Claire. They were all up in the loft area choosing where they planned to spend the night.
“We’re leaving. Now.”
“What? Why?” Claire sounded shocked and angry. Four heads were staring down at me, waiting for an explanation.
“Okay, I’m leaving. Normally I wouldn’t try to persuade you to follow me, but in this case I’m going to make an exception. Listen very carefully. Come with me, right now. Keep quiet, do exactly what I tell you, and fucking move!”
I turned, bag on back, weapons drawn, and left. There was no time for explanations, and I was reluctant even to give them a hint of what I’d heard. If, somehow, one of those brothers heard me voice my suspicions, we’d be done. It was unlikely, but then it was unlikely for me to have heard them, too.
I should point out that the conversation I overheard was not conclusive proof of anything. I could quite easily have misunderstood what they were talking about. Or they might have been exaggerating and making outrageous statements to try and impress each other, as boys often do when they’re together.
It was hard to forget what Captain Grayson had said about the mouse warriors, how they kidnapped young girls and what they did to them. Not that it lessened the guilt of killing those babies, but at least it made it seem like some good would come of it. But if the mice weren’t responsible at all, if these hillbilly arseholes were the real culprits, not only did it mean we really were murderers, it also meant we were about to meet a sticky end if we hung around here much longer. It would be especially sticky for Claire and Flossie.
I had no intention of waiting around to find out if I was suspecting them unfairly. Fuck fair. If I was making unreasonable assumptions, I’d just have to learn to live with it.
The others caught up with me, looking confused and scared. They followed my lead, keeping low and sneaking around the back of the barn into the fields of corn. I headed back toward the road that led to Fengarad, but rather than use the track we’d taken to get here, I was cutting through the field so we would come out much further along the road.
Trampling through someone’s crops was considered a crime in these parts, but my only concern was to not be seen, and the tall stalks of corn provided excellent cover. I just hoped I was heading in the right direction.
After about half an hour, we broke out of the corn into a meadow. Far to our left we could see a break in the grass indicating where the track was. Ahead of us was the forest and the road to the city. I stopped to take a drink of water. Unfortunately, we had missed out on the chance to stock up on food at the farm, but if we got back to the river, we would be able to survive the three days it would take to get to Fengarad. Assuming we didn’t run into the rogue ogre.
“Are you going to tell us what the fuck is going on?” said Claire.
They had all done what I had asked. Not one word was spoken as we fled through the corn. No one demanded answers or wanted to stop and rest. They deserved an explanation, so I told them what I’d overheard.
They were all stunned by what I said. Claire and Flossie both paled, while Dudley and Maurice drew their weapons even though there was no one to fight. They didn’t question the accuracy of what I’d heard, or of the conclusions I’d drawn.
“Somebody has to stop them,” said Claire, her voice all shaky.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I hope somebody does, but right now we have other things to worry about.”
I pointed down the road at the horse and wagon approaching in the distance.