Mandy ran towards Sonny who jumped down from his horse and embraced her. Also watching this reunion were a dozen or so soldiers on horseback. They were covered in dust and grime but that did nothing to hide the air of menace they exuded. The only thing worse than a vicious thug is a vicious thug in uniform.
Each was built like brick shit-house and had the face of man who would kill you if he could be bothered, so probably best not to bother him.
“You guys know Sonny,” I said to Jenny.
“Yes. We met him in Fengarad. He was close with Tin and Dag.”
“Not a big fan?” asked Jenny.
As Sonny and Mandy excitedly exchanged words, his face transformed from delight to shock to sadness. Mandy pointed over to us, and then Sonny’s face took on a whole new visage. I guess you could call it fury.
“Not exactly. By the way, I’m kicking you out of the group. If Sonny asks, we just escorted you here.”
“No,” said Jenny. “I’m with you guys.” She said it in a very matter of fact manner.
Maurice appeared next to me. “We could leave.”
He was right. We could turn around and walk away, the kind of walking you do when your legs move very fast, but where would we go? And that was only if Sonny allowed it. There was no way we could outrun him and any kind of fight would end badly for us.
“Let’s head into the city. Hopefully, he won’t start anything in front of all these people.” I started walking towards the city gate with the others close behind me. And I mean really close.
We didn’t get far before Sonny called out. “Stop! I need to speak to you.”
“What is it, Sonny? What do you want?” In an attempt to cover up my nervousness I may have overcompensated and gone belligerent. Would have sounded even more confrontational if my voice hadn’t jumped two octaves.
The Dirty Dozen on horseback straightened in their saddles, although they might have just been wondering about the strange boy with the falsetto.
Sonny ignored me and looked across to Jenny. “Jen, love, I’m so sorry about Tin and the others. You must be heartbroken.”
I didn’t know what Mandy had told him, but it didn’t sound like he knew what had really happened. Which was a relief.
He turned his attention back to me. “Mandy tells me you encountered the lizardmen.” Sonny spoke through gritted teeth but in quite a formal manner, like he was dealing with us in an official capacity. “You’ll have to come with us to be debriefed.”
On the surface of it he sounded quite reasonable. He just wanted to get a report on what we’d seen for the security of the city. But I wasn’t in any hurry to be alone in some backroom with him. His strangely restrained manner made me think he was putting on a show, either for the men behind him or for the people who had stopped to watch out of curiosity.
“No thanks,” I said. “We already have plans.”
“It wasn’t a request, mate,” said Sonny. “There’s a war going on, in case you hadn’t noticed. The information you have could be important.”
“Yes,” I said, “it could. And once we’ve sorted ourselves out I’ll be sure to report what we know to the proper authorities, which I’m pretty sure isn’t you, you fuckwit.”
Maybe it would have been wiser to not aggravate the situation, but Sonny was going out of his way to present himself as calm and collected, which made me think the best way to handle things was to go in the opposite direction.
“Last time we met,” I continued, “you were in the Fengarad army. They get attacked and suddenly you’re in the Dargot army. I guess if the lizardmen head up this way, you’ll join the fucking navy.”
The crowd murmured and muttered their opinions on the drama unfolding in front of them. I could have sent Maurice round with a hat and made a small fortune. The soldiers on horseback had all become much more interested in our conversation, but none of them had made any kind of move to get involved. Yet.
Sonny’s face turned bright red. “I’m here to help liberate Fengarad. I know we’ve had our differences, but this isn’t the time or place. Mandy’s told me how you helped her and Jenny after the lizardmen ambushed them, so I’m going to let bygones be bygones. There are bigger things at stake here than you and me.”
It seemed Mandy had told him Tin and the others had died at the hands of the lizardmen. I looked at her and she stared right back, her face saying, “This is me repaying my debt.” If she thought this made us even, fair enough. In a roundabout way, she probably had saved my life by not telling Sonny the truth.
It was good that Sonny was unaware of our role in their deaths, but I still had no intention of going anywhere with him.
“We’ll handle things the way we think best,” I said. “It’s got nothing to do with you, so go on about your business, and we’ll do the same.” I waved him away with both hands.
“You really want to make this as awkward as possible, don’t you?” said Sonny. “Well, okay, mate, have it your way. Feddon, have the men dismount. We’re taking these guys into custody.”
The largest and ugliest of the soldiers raised a hand and shouted, “Dismount!”
All the soldiers dismounted and drew their swords. I didn’t bother doing the same since it wouldn’t have helped. There was no way we would win in a fight.
Feddon stopped when he was level with Sonny. “You sure about this? They are visitors. We don’t actually have the authority to apprehend them unless we see them commit a crime.”
Sonny didn’t appear pleased to have his orders questioned. “Fengarad is under siege and the surrounding area is crawling with lizardmen, but somehow these galahs made it out in one piece. You think that isn’t suspicious? Plus, there’s no way Tin and Dag got killed by a bunch of lizards, not unless they had some help.”
“Are you saying we’re fighting with the lizardmen?” Even I couldn’t believe his cheek. “Are you nuts?”
“That isn’t true,” said Jenny.
“Sonny, you’ve got it wrong,” chipped in Mandy.
“I don’t know what happened to you two girls. Maybe he threatened you, maybe he’s just got you fooled, but I know the kind of shit he’s capable of, believe me. He killed my fucking horse!”
“No, I didn’t,” I said. “You killed your horse. When you let that ogre eat it to save your own neck. And the rest of your accusations are all bullshit. You weren’t there, how the fuck do you know what happened?”
The men behind him seemed hesitant to carry out his orders, but they would eventually if I didn’t find a way out of this predicament soon. I stuck my hand inside my jacket and took out the contents of the inside pocket.
“And we have this. The Key to Fengarad.” I held up the golden key.
“That doesn’t mean anything here,” snorted Sonny.
“It means we are under the protection of the King of Fengarad. You attack us, you attack the City of Fengarad.” I had no idea if that was true, but it sounded good.
The soldiers looked unsure of themselves. It was working, but only as a stalling tactic.
“Don’t listen to him,” said Sonny. “He’s lying. The key’s obviously a fake. Look at it.”
The key, I had to admit, didn’t look all that impressive. Commander Ducane had given it to us and it had been sitting in a box for years before that. It was old and its lustre had faded. The soldiers began to advance towards us.
“That very clearly is not a fake,” said a quiet and gentle voice. And then the atmosphere changed from tense to something closer to terror.
All the people who had stopped to watch suddenly started moving. They couldn’t get away fast enough. As they left, a short man, also in Dargot military uniform, was revealed. He had small circular glasses on a round, avuncular face.
The soldiers who had a moment ago appeared to be a rabble about to beat the crap out of us were now standing to stiff attention.
“Ah, Colin, if I’d known you were arriving today I would have been here to meet you.” He seemed to know me, although I had no idea who he was. But there was something about the way he carried himself, the way he spoke, that demanded attention. And most of all, there was the uniform.
In most armies, you can tell how important someone is by their get up. The higher up the chain of command you go, the more ornate the outfit. Gold braid, fringes, bigger hats, extra bells and whistles. It’s fairly obvious who’s in charge. But there is one kind of uniform that trumps them all. It isn’t particularly flashy or colourful. In fact, it’s usually the opposite; practical, unfussy, plain. But if you look closely, there will be a small insignia somewhere, maybe on the cuffs or the collars, that gives away the function of their unit. A skull.
The skull is there to say, Don’t mind me, I’m just here to kill you all. Secret police, death squad, Ministry of Information—the titles can vary, but the job is the same. Scare the shit out of everyone.
In this case, the skull was embroidered very beautifully onto each shoulder, with a lightning bolt slicing it in two.
He stopped next to the petrified soldiers. “Ah, Feddon. Nice to see you again.”
“Thank you, Lord Administrator,” said the previously formidable brute. He now shook in his boots like a newborn Bambi. “Very nice to see you too.”
“And how are the wife and children? Good, I trust. Your eldest, Tiffia, is it? She must be getting on to fifteen now. How time flies, eh? Let’s hope she grows up to be as delightful a woman as her lovely mother.”
“Yes, Lord Administrator. Thank you, Lord Administrator.”
On the surface of it you’d think it was just polite small talk, but the look in Feddon’s eyes was pure panic. He seemed to be begging, “No, please, not my daughter. I’ll do anything, just leave her be...”
The Lord Administrator smiled genially and moved on, much to Feddon’s obvious relief.
“Captain, good to have you back. I hope your mission was fruitful.”
“Yes, Lord Administrator,” said Sonny. Even he seemed subdued in this small man’s presence.
“You should probably go file your report. Immediately, if not sooner.” It was said in an almost jokey manner, and yet it was less a suggestion and more an absolute command.
“Yes. I was just going to take care of—”
“No need to worry about your friends. I’ll make sure they’re taken care of.” He turned to us. “Please, allow me to welcome you to Dargot. You will join me for dinner, yes?” A response was not required, the decision had already been made. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions about our wonderful city. And I have a lot of questions for you. Oh, and Captain…”
Sonny and his men had climbed back onto their horses. “Yes, Sir?”
“After you’ve filed your report, why don’t you join us? I’m sure you’ll want to catch up with your fellow visitors.”
Sonny’s face paled. “Thank you, Lord Administrator.”
“It’ll just be an informal affair, no need to bring anything. Or anyone.” I’d thought the Dirty Dozen were menacing. This guy made them all look like a bunch of adorable tykes. Especially now that they were all grinning at each other and bumping fists. Not getting invited to dinner was apparently cause for celebration.
“I’ll look forward to it,” said Sonny like he was swallowing broken glass. He flicked the reins and headed through the city gates, followed by some very happy thugs.
“Ah, alone at last,” said our new friend. And we were. The whole area, which had been teeming with people a few seconds ago, was now completely deserted. It was hard to know if we should be grateful for his intervention, or just take our chances and run for it. He only had little legs, he’d never catch us.
He must have seen me sizing him up. “You’d never outrun the dogs.”
I looked around but couldn’t see any dogs. I believed him, though. And in any case you should never turn down a free meal. You never know when it might be your last.
AN: I’ve started a thread on Reddit, just to see if it catches anyone’s attention. You can visit the thread here (LINK) and I'll be updating releases on Reddit regularly from now on.