First off, I want to make it clear the reason I fainted wasn’t the blood. I was used to guts and entrails and all the viscera that came with preparing freshly killed animals, so a little blood was no big whoop.
Healing Mandy had taken quite a lot out of me. I wasn’t sure how magic worked, but there was clearly a cost. Maybe I had even sacrificed part of my life force to save her. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time Mandy had sucked the life out of a guy.
I came round to see Claire leaning over me. It was getting to be a bit of a habit.
“How long was I out?” I’d always wanted to say that.
“A few minutes. Are you alright?” She sounded less concerned than last time, so I assumed I was going to be okay.
“I’m fine. Just exhausted.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Mandy. She was standing with her arms crossed and a defiant look on her face.
“Yes, you’re right.” I shakily got to my feet. “Here’s your answer—shut the fuck up. I don’t know where you got the idea you had the right to ask questions, but you don’t. I said I’d take you to Dargot, that’s all. If that isn’t enough for you, feel free to go your own way. And if you don’t stop pissing me off, I’m going to tie you up and leave you here as a tasty treat for the lizardmen.”
Firm but fair. That’s what women respect, right?
“Who do you think—” was as far as Mandy got before Claire stepped in between us.
“Enough! Mandy, whatever it is you think you’re doing right now, stop it. He saved your life, and you didn’t even say thank you.”
You have to remember we were English. You could transport us to another world, dress us in rags and make us fight mythical creatures, fine, but you forget your please and thank yous, and we won’t stand for it.
“He’s kept us all alive, and never asked for anything in return. He could have made us all his slaves and treated us like trash, but he didn’t.”
“Wait,” I said. “I could have made you my slaves? Why wasn’t I informed about this earlier?”
“Shut up, Colin.” Claire gave me a disapproving look. “This isn’t the time for jokes.” She turned back to a slightly shamefaced Mandy. “You owe him your life. And make no mistake, if he genuinely decided to tie you up and leave you behind, none of us would be able to stop him.”
The talking to seemed to take the wind out of Mandy’s sails. She stood there without answering back. I’d seen Claire get mad before, but this was the first time it was on my behalf. It crossed my mind that she’d make a really good madame in a brothel, keeping the girls in line. I think we all know what job Mandy would have in that scenario.
“If that’s settled, can I ask something?” I said. “What the fuck did you say to those soldiers?”
“Nothing,” said Mandy without looking at me. “I didn’t say anything that would make them attack me.”
“Yes,” I said, “but what did you say?”
Mandy thought about it. “I told them I was an adventurer on the way to Dargot, and that I’d been captured by trolls, but managed to escape by winning a singing competition.” She sneaked a guilty glance at Flossie. “I only said it was me that won because you didn’t want me mentioning the rest of you.”
“Yeah, whatever.” I wasn’t surprised Mandy felt envious of Flossie’s popularity with the trolls—girls don’t like it when other girls get attention, even if it’s from monsters. “Did they act weird when you mentioned the trolls?”
Mandy looked at me for the first time. “Actually, yes. They started getting a bit fidgety. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe they thought you were in league with the trolls,” said Maurice.
“What if they come back with reinforcements?” said Claire.
It was a possibility, but I felt there was more to it than that. The way the soldiers had scarpered had felt like they were running away, not going for help.
“Let’s go back to the camp,” I said. “They don’t know about the rest of us, so we should be okay for now. ”
We headed back to our camp.
“We’ll leave at first light,” I said. “I need to get some rest before I pass out again. You lot sort out, you know…” I left them to organise the watch and crawled into my tent. I collapsed onto my blanket face first and lay there. It was hard to breathe with my nose pressed into the ground, but I didn’t feel like moving.
There was a noise behind me as someone else crawled into the tent, and then lay down beside me. I tilted my head onto one side.
“What are you doing?”
“This is where I sleep,” said Jenny. “I’ve got second watch.” She yawned.
Nothing to get excited about. Perfectly normal. Usually I was on watch while she slept and vice versa, so we were never in the tent at the same time. Sleeping with a girl next to me was no different to sleeping alone. Yeah, right.
“You know,” said Jenny, “you have to remember she was just stabbed and nearly died. She’s probably still in shock. She’s just dealing with it badly.”
It was a fair point. I’d healed her wounds, but that didn’t take away the memory of being violently gutted. Coping with that couldn’t be easy.
“She was just as difficult to deal with before she was attacked. I don’t think it made much of a difference to the way she’s acting.”
“Someone like her,” said Jenny, lying on her back and staring at the roof of the tent, “probably had to deal with a bunch of horrible things that turned her into the person she is today. She probably had a messed up childhood.”
“You could say the same about Fred West. Hey, Fred, we know you probably had it tough growing up, so let’s forget about all the kids buried in your back garden and make a fresh start. Hug? It’s no excuse.”
Jenny rolled over onto her side, her face inches away from mine. “Are you seriously comparing Mandy to a serial killer?”
“Yes.” I turned to face the other way. “Goodnight.”
“I don’t think you’re being very fair. I’m sure once she’s had a chance to calm down a bit—”
I turned back to face her. “No. Whatever you’re going to say, no. What’s going to happen is what always happens when the person you thought was a piece of shit beneath you, turns out to actually be above you. Your ego flips out. If they’re above you and they’re a piece of shit, what does that make you?”
Jenny was staring into my eyes, but I wasn’t in the mood for romantic thoughts.
“And everyone around you has seen it. They all know you couldn’t take care of yourself. They saw you needed help from the piece of shit. How can you accept that? You can’t. So you convince yourself the piece of shit only helped you to make himself look good. In fact, you wouldn’t even have needed help if the piece of shit hadn’t got you into this mess in the first place. He shouldn’t be thanked….”
“He should be punished?”
“Right. He should be punished, and then everyone will know you are better than a piece of shit. Because that’s how people full of self-loathing make themselves feel better, by making others feel worse. And you know who else feels good when they make others feel bad?”
“Now you got it.” I rolled onto my back. “Shit. And now, thanks to you, I can’t sleep.”
“Oh, well if you need to have a quick shufty, I don’t mind.”
“You know, the old five knuckle shuffle. I grew up with four brothers, so it doesn’t bother me. Every night the house would be full of that ffft ffft ffft sound. It’s like a bedtime lullaby to me.”
“Thanks, but I’m not aroused, I’m a—”
“No,” I said. “That’s not what I was going to say.”
“Are you sure? Because it would explain a lot.”
I turned my head to look at her. She was grinning like an idiot.
“The reason I can’t sleep isn’t because I’m aroused or a gay, it’s because all this talk about Mandy has made me annoyed.”
“I think,” said Jenny, “you’ll find it’s pronounced a nerd.”
I rolled onto my other side so she wouldn’t see the stupid smile on my face. It’s all very well telling yourself you have no chance with a girl and not to bother being interested, but my God was I interested. It made me want to confess my feelings to her, even if it meant getting shot down in flames. Fortunately, I was too knackered and fell asleep before I could make a fool of myself.
When I woke, I was alone in the tent. I crawled out to find everyone already packing up. They’d let me sleep in because I guess they thought I needed it. I wasn’t going to argue.
Mandy was up and hard at it too. She seemed a lot calmer than the night before. Whether someone had spoken to her or not, I didn’t know. She didn’t say anything to me, which was good enough.
We set off at a brisk pace, on the lookout for humans and monsters alike. The long empty road made it hard for anyone to sneak up on us, at least. After many hours of walking, we finally spotted the city in the distance. Unlike Fengarad, there were no spires or tall buildings, there was just one big castle. The sight of our destination buoyed us all and gave us a boost of energy.
It took several more hours to get close enough for a proper look at the city. It turned out there were city walls with a castle rising in its midst as though it was built on a hill, which was strange since there were no hills in Flatland (as the name suggested).
But that was a mystery I could look into later. Our first priority was to get inside. There was a large gate, but unlike Fengarad, there was no queue to get in. People were flowing in and out freely.
Watching over them were the city guards. Their uniforms looked familiar—the same as the two men who had attacked Mandy. I looked at the others; they’d made the same observation. We would have to be careful, not draw attention to ourselves and have an exit strategy in place, just in case. But before I could say anything, Mandy’s eyes lit up and she started bouncing up and down.
I turned to where she was waving and calling. Sitting on a huge stallion, dressed in the same colours as the guards, was the antipodean dickhead we’d left behind near Probet. He had seen Mandy and was waving back. He hadn’t spotted the rest of us, but he would. I’m not a psychic, but I had a premonition this would not be a happy reunion.