Before I arrived in this world, I had never been in a fight. I kept to myself at school and did my best not to get involved. In anything. This way, I successfully managed to avoid getting the shit beaten out of me. It was a pretty rough school in North London, so the beating would have been quite severe.
Once I left school, it wasn’t too hard to stay out of trouble. Nobody showed much interest in me and I didn’t go out of my way to provoke people. You have to be noticed to be punched.
However, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Learning how to take a punch is a useful skill, especially in world where everyone’s running around trying to kill everyone else.
The troll who hit me didn’t use his full strength. All he did was tap me on the forehead with his finger. When I came round, I was on the floor with Claire leaning over me.
“Are you okay?” She sounded genuinely concerned for me, which was worrying.
I put a hand to my head, which hurt like a motherfucker. There was a bump the size of a golf ball in the middle of my forehead.
“I managed to stop the bleeding,” said Claire, “but my healing still isn’t that great. I couldn’t do anything about the swelling. Or the bruising. Or that weird jelly stuff.” She pulled a face that suggested what she was looking at wasn’t very pleasant.
I sat up, groaned, placed both hands over my face and healed myself. The pain dissipated and the swelling went down. Hopefully, it also took care of the ‘jelly stuff’, whatever that was.
When I lowered my hands and looked around, I realised we were no longer in the tunnels. We were in a large cave and we weren’t alone. Apart from our group, there were a dozen or so other people.
Maurice knelt down next to Claire. “You alright?”
“Peachy,” I said, still feeling a bit woozy. “What happened?”
“After you got knocked out, they brought us here,” said Maurice. “We thought it best to do what they said. You know, because they’re huge and made of rock.”
“And these other people?”
Maurice looked around, pushed his slipping glasses back up his nose, and leaned closer. “This is some sort of prison,” he said in a lowered voice. “They’re all captives here, like us.”
From what I could tell, there were six men, four women and a couple of others lying down making it harder to identify them. They appeared pretty normal. Their clothes were practically rags and there weren’t any fatties among them—gaunt might be the best way to describe them—but they were all clean and well-groomed, which was kind of odd.
“Okay,” I said, “but why are you whispering?”
“Walls have ears,” he said, “and eyes and hands and feet. Know what I mean?”
I did know what he meant. The trolls who had ambushed us had been indistinguishable from their surroundings. It was quite possible there were trolls in this cavern watching us right now. I glanced around like I’d be able to spot one.
Torches on the walls lit the cave and there was one exit. It was unguarded but no one seemed to be in a rush to use it. Mind you, I didn’t know what was on the other side.
“We have to watch what we say,” said Maurice. “Plans are afoot.” He waggled his eyebrows at me.
Shit. I lose consciousness for a couple of minutes and the inmates immediately take control of the asylum.
Jenny sat down next to Maurice. “Welcome back. Enjoy your nap?”
“Yes, very refreshing.” I felt like I was balancing a sack of potatoes on my head, but at least the searing pain had gone.
She reached out and touched my forehead. “Amazing. Good as new.”
I didn’t say anything. Is it wrong getting pleasure from a girl touching your forehead? Or just sad? She withdrew her hand and I had to grit my teeth to prevent a sigh from escaping.
“Did the trolls say anything about what they were going to do to us?” I asked.
“They didn’t say anything at all,” said Claire. “Just dumped us here, didn’t even take our stuff.” She pointed behind me.
I turned. Dudley was sitting with his back to the wall, eyes closed. Nestled into the crook of his arm was Flossie, quietly singing to him. It sounded like the chipmunk version of ‘Can’t Feel My Face’. Here we were trapped underground, in serious danger of being killed by gigantic rock creatures, and these two were so happy cartoon birds were practically flying around their heads. Sickening.
Next to them was a pile of our bags. I realised I also had all my weapons and equipment on me.
“I guess you don’t have to worry about swords and spears when you’re made out of solid stone,” said Maurice.
That didn’t make much sense. Even if they didn’t feel threatened by us, why take the chance of leaving us with all our gear? And even if we couldn’t hurt them, what about all these other people? We could easily get into a fight with them.
“You know who the trolls remind me of?” said Claire. “The Thing from The Fantastic Four. Only not so orange.” She turned to Maurice, inordinately pleased with herself and in full expectation of a pat on the head for her pop cultural reference. She’d even got the colour right, surely that was worth bonus points.
It’s always endearing when a girl tries to show an interest in her boyfriend’s obsessions. It shows she cares enough to try. But it never turns out well. Never.
“Ugh,” said Maurice. “Honestly, worst superhero team, ever.”
“Oh.” Claire’s wagging tail abruptly stopped wagging. “Really? I thought—”
“Think about it. Invisible Woman, because she turns invisible, fine. Human Torch, obvious, no problem. The Thing, okay. And then Reed Richards. How much of an egomaniac do you have to be to call yourself Mr Fantastic? And what’s that got to do with stretching your arms? Mr Elastic, sure. But Mr Fantastic? If I was in that team, I’d be like, why don’t you Mr Fuck Off?”
Claire frowned. The praise she’d been hoping for had not materialised and her contribution had been unacknowledged, dismissed even. I’m not great at sensing a woman’s moods, but even I could see we were rapidly approaching clobberin’ time. Maurice didn’t notice and was about to launch into his next rant, my guess, probably something to do with how shitty the movies were.
“Perhaps he didn’t name himself,” I said. “Maybe his wife named him. He can stretch any part of his body, after all.”
“Oh,” said Claire, successfully distracted. “That is pretty fantastic.”
“Mm,” agreed Jenny. They both sat there staring into space. I didn’t know what they were thinking about, but I could guess.
“What happened to Mandy?” I had suddenly noticed she wasn’t with us.
“She’s over there,” said Maurice. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
Mandy was sitting in a group of men, chatting away. She seemed very much at home.
“Didn’t take her long to jump ship,” I said.
“No, no,” said Maurice. “She’s been great. It was a bit edgy when we first got here, but she made friends with them and smoothed everything over.” He leaned in close again. “May even have found us a way out of here.”
My natural inclination was to have little faith in whatever scheme Mandy had cooked up. But I also have little faith in my own gut instincts, so if Mandy had stumbled onto an escape plan, I wasn’t going to turn my nose up at it.
“See the guy she’s talking to?” Mandy was deep in conversation with the largest of the group she was sitting with. A burly, heavily-bearded man. “He’s their leader. I think he likes her.”
Maurice could well have been right. As Mandy leaned against the man as she spoke, he stared into her face, paying attention to every word. Which was odd, because her breasts were right under his nose. Literally. He was completely ignoring them.
Mandy looked over and caught my eye. She smiled. She’d never smiled at me before. She said something to the man and they both got up and came over. I stood up, as did the others.
“Colin,” said Mandy, “this is Raviva.”
The man, who towered over me, put out his hand. “It’s good to meet you, friend.” His voice was so deep I felt it in my chest. I had to stop myself from wincing as he crushed my hand in his. “You have arrived at fortuitous time.” He lowered his voice to the loudest whisper I’d ever heard. “We are on the verge of escaping this pit of despair.”
Seemed a bit of an exaggeration. “How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Ahhh,” said Raviva. “It’s hard to measure the passage of time in this place. Months? Years? No, not that long. We were travelling to Dargot when a storm drove us to seek shelter in some caves. We didn’t know the danger within.”
“We are merchants who travel from—”
“No,” I said, “I mean why did they capture you and keep you here. What do they want with you?”
Raviva shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t answer that. They’re not big on explaining themselves. Occasionally, they take one of us away, for what reason I do not know. We used to be twenty-three. Now we are twelve.” His welcoming smile evaporated at the thought of his lost companions.
“And you’ve never tried to escape?”
“There’s never been an opportunity. Until now.” He moved towards me, grabbing me by the shoulders and pulling me in close. “Every day they take us to the washroom so we can perform our ablutions.” He was speaking into my ear in a hushed voice that was loud enough to rattle my skull. “An underground stream runs through a cave and we are allowed to bathe in it. A few days ago, one of our group, a young man called Samara, couldn’t stand it any longer and dived under the water. He swam through the wall and disappeared. We thought he must have lost his mind.”
Raviva pulled back and widened his eyes to express the shock he had felt.
“What could have been waiting for him other than death? But no! He was recaptured and returned a day later, but he had seen where the stream led.” He pulled me in close again. “According to him, he had been flushed out into a large cavern where hundreds of trolls were mining. And there was a large opening that led to the outside world.” Raviva shook me violently. “Freedom, my friend, freedom.”
“And they just returned him?” I asked once the shaking stopped.
“He told them it was an accident. He hadn’t meant to get washed away, and almost died when he fell down the waterfall. They seem content that none of us would intentionally do something so stupid. But that is where they’re wrong! I would rather die in the attempt than stay here any longer. We have discussed it amongst ourselves and agreed to do this. You are welcome to join us.”
“What about the hundreds of trolls on the other side?” I said. “How do you plan to get past them?”
“Samara said they were too busy with their mining operation to notice him. Unfortunately, he was so disorientated by the fall, he ended up walking into their midst. But now that we know what to expect…”
“But do you really think the best way to sneak past a large number of trolls is to take as
many people as possible with you?”
Raviva scratched his heavily bearded chin. “You make a fair point, but who do we leave behind? And at least this way, even if we are spotted, the more of us there are, the better the chance that at least a few of us will manage to escape.”
I thought it over. What he said made a lot of sense, and there was definitely a possibility it would work. And there was definitely a possibility it wouldn’t.
“Well, it sounds like you have a reasonable chance of making it. I wish you luck.”
Raviva let go of my shoulders. “You don’t want to come with us?”
“No thanks.” Everyone looked a bit miffed at my decision. “I’m just speaking for myself. The others will have to make up their own minds, of course.”
Mandy was incensed. “This is because I made this possible, isn’t it? Nobody’s allowed to make a move without your say so, right? You have to take the credit for everything.”
“I just don’t like the plan. I wouldn’t expect you to go along with something just because I thought it was a good idea, and vice versa. You want to do it, go ahead.”
“And what about you?” Mandy said to Claire and Maurice. “Are you just going to do whatever he tells you to do?”
“Actually,” I said, “I haven’t told them—”
“Be quiet,” snapped Mandy, “I’m not talking to you.” She turned back to the other two. “Well? Are you fine with just following him around for the rest of your lives? Are you just puppets under his control?”
Both Claire and Maurice had reverted to their old selves under the onslaught. They looked anxious and unsure of what to say as they clung to each other.
“You know,” said Maurice in a quavering voice, “you shouldn’t take what he says so personally. He’s like that with everyone.”
“We don’t like him either,” said Claire, which was a bit harsh, “but he actually knows what he’s doing. I know how hard that is to believe.”
I made a mental note to make sure Claire wasn’t allowed to give my eulogy.
“I don’t get it,” said Mandy. “It’s like you’re in some kind of cult. What is this spell he’s got all of you under? You have to snap out of it and start thinking for yourselves.”
“You want them to start thinking for themselves,” I said, “and do what you want them to do?”
“Shut up. That’s not what I meant and you—” Mandy stopped mid-sentence and just stared at me. “What happened to that thing on your head?” She leaned towards me to get a better look. “There was a nasty, gungy mess there a minute ago, and now it’s gone.”
“Ah, you know, I’m a quick healer.”
Mandy turned to the others who did an excellent job of looking furtive and suspicious. You could see the gears going around in Mandy’s head as she started to put things together. At least she had stopped shouting at us.
Raviva, who had been watching this unfold, probably thinking we were all crazy, chose this moment to speak. “Tell me, what is it about our plan that you find so objectionable. Do you think a better opportunity will present itself?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but the idea of bum-rushing the guards and hoping a few people get through isn’t acceptable. I wouldn’t go with a plan unless I felt there was at least a decent prospect of everyone getting out alive.”
“Your people mean that much to you?” Raviva seemed touched by this notion.
“They aren’t my people, and no, they don’t mean that much to me, but if even one of them died the others would whine and complain like you wouldn’t believe. I get hardly any peace and quiet as it is. The level of moaning would be unbearable.”
“I don’t know whether to thank him or hit him,” said Claire.
“At least he wants to keep us all alive,” said Maurice.
“Yes,” said Claire, “out of contempt.”
“Whatever my reasons,” I said, “that’s how I feel about it. It’s up to you to decide what you want to do.”
I sat down again, feeling quite exhausted. Escaping through underground streams and fighting our way past hundreds of trolls was too much effort to even think about, especially on an empty stomach. I wondered if there was a prison canteen.
AN: A big thanks to my two new patrons. I didn’t expect even one, so my undying gratitude and I’ll try to sort out your rewards as soon as I get a moment.
Also, this story is now at number 10 in the weekly chart. Thanks to all of you who followed, faved and rated, and also those who voted over at Top Web Fiction (VOTE). The extra exposure really helped. Not sure I can make it past the big boys to Top Five, but still really happy to get so high up the charts. Cheers.