“Come,” said Gullen. “Follow me.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Prison,” said Gullen.
There were six of us and only one of him, plus a small girl and two dogs. It was more than enough. We walked up the stairs with Gullen leading the way and the dogs bringing up the rear.
The dogs didn’t make any sounds or threaten to bite anyone, but still managed to be terrifying. No one wanted to be at the back near them. No one wanted to be at the front near Gullen either. It was a very tightly packed middle.
The Sheaf felt deserted. We were the only people on the staircase and the hallways were empty. Even the reception desk was unmanned.
Biadet seemed to have developed a fascination with Dudley and kept staring at him all the way up the eight flights of stairs, which he understandably found unnerving. He would smile politely, and then manoeuvre himself to the other side of Flossie to get some distance between them. Before he even had a chance to settle into his stride, Biadet would appear next to him.
I thought if I watched closely I’d see how she did it, but it always happened the second I looked away. I know what you’re thinking. If I just focused there’s no way she could avoid revealing her secret, but it was impossible. My attention slid off her like someone had my head on a string and gave it a pull just at the right moment.
What I needed to do was arrange two or three of us to observe her from different angles, but as soon as we exited the Sheaf, she disappeared into the crowd. Then the crowd saw Gullen, and they disappeared.
I felt a tug on my sleeve and turned to find Dudley next to me. The concern on his face was hard to miss.
“The young girl…” he muttered in a low voice.
“You mean Biadet?” I looked around but there was no sign of her. Which meant absolutely nothing. “What about her?”
“She passed me a note.” Dudley had a small piece of paper held between two fingers which he was insistently thrusting at me.
I took it from him. “Do you think she wanted you to give it to me?”
“I can’t say for certain, but by God I hope so.”
Before I could ask him anything else he dropped back level with Flossie and grabbed her hand. She seemed pleased by this sign of affection, although I don’t think you need to hold on quite so tight just to say I love you.
The note had three words written on it:
It was in their alphabet so I had to read it a couple of times to make sure I had it right, but it still didn’t make sense. Gargantua wasn’t even a word. Did she mean gargantuan? If she did, did I want to know why? Probably not.
Was it a warning? A threat? What she wanted for her birthday? I felt like throwing it away but I could just imagine someone picking it up and assuming I wrote it. I put it in my pocket and hoped nobody would find it before I could dispose of it.
We stopped outside an unassuming building nestled between a small restaurant and a shoe shop. The dogs sat down either side of the unremarkable door without being told.
The building was little more than the entrance to a set of stairs which led down and down and down. At the bottom were a number of guards and more dogs. Beyond a series of metal bars there was an enclosure containing six men.
They were dressed in the uniform of the Dargot army. Two of them I recognised. They were the men who had stabbed Mandy.
One of the guards unlocked the gate and opened it for us to go through.
“I’ll leave you here to think over my offer,” said Gullen.
He didn’t wait for me to say anything, he turned around and walked out. That left four dogs and eight guards on one side of the bars, and the six of us on this side with what I guessed were six trolls.
Everyone in my group huddled together in one corner. The one furthest from the trolls.
“Why don’t they turn back into trolls and escape?” Maurice asked me in hushed tones. “We’ve seen what they’re like in their true form. They could just punch a hole in the wall and leave, couldn’t they?”
He was right. The trolls we had encountered could dig tunnels with their bare hands. “I don’t know. Maybe when they go deep undercover, they go real deep.”
Maurice nodded. “Method acting. They don’t want to break character.”
The trolls were all sitting on one side of the room, not talking and hardly moving. They hadn’t reacted when we were brought in and didn’t look like they had the slightest interest in why we’d been put in here with them.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” asked Claire. I was pretty sure she already knew the answer.
“Of course I’m not sure,” I confirmed for her.
“Ah’m hungry,” said Flossie. The others grumbled along the same lines.
“I’m not sure what you expect me to do about that. I think there’s some lichen growing on the walls. You could try licking it.”
Claire walked over to the bars and shouted, “Hey! What time’s lunch.”
The guards ignored her. One of the dogs licked its lips like it agreed it was time to eat, which made me lose my appetite.
Gullen hadn’t really explained what he expected from locking us up with the trolls, but I could guess. Having decided I had some vague ability to solve problems in unusual ways, he wanted me to use my powers on these taciturn trolls. Sadly, my real ability was to act like a dick until everyone got so pissed off they left. The ultimate defence since it’s very hard to kill someone when you don’t want to be anywhere near them.
Everyone slowly slid down the slightly damp walls until they were sitting on the floor. Since we were probably going to be here a while, I thought I might as well test the waters.
The largest of the prisoners sat slightly apart from the others. He had a thick beard and bushy eyebrows, but a shaved head. I wandered over towards him trying to act casual. I created this illusion by hooking my thumbs in the top of my trousers, like I was Tom fucking Sawyer.
“Now that they can find you using the dogs, you won’t be able to hide from them, no matter what shape you take,” I pointed out.
He looked at me but didn’t say anything. After a few seconds of this treatment I felt so uncomfortable, I turned around and walked away again. Thumbs still in waistband.
Maurice sidled up to me and whispered in my ear. “You know, I read a theory somewhere, if you end up in prison, the first thing you should do is grab the smallest person you can find and beat the shit out of them. It lets the other inmates know not to fuck with you.”
I looked around. Even though the trolls were sitting down it was obvious not one of them was under six foot.
“By that logic,” I said, “the person I should beat the shit out of is you.”
Maurice pushed his glasses up his nose. “Like I said, it was just a theory.”
I decided to try again, this time without the thumbplay. I walked over and sat down next to my Huckleberry friend. “You aren’t as much fun as Raviva and his lot. I guess you aren’t part of his band of merry pranksters.”
The mention of Raviva didn’t get a reaction from the troll I was talking to, but the others did look my way. I decided to push on to see if I could provoke a verbal response from one of them.
“We were captured by them. King Raviva let us go because we defeated them in combat.” Technically true.
Now all eyes were on me.
“It was a singing contest, if you’re wondering. Our champion against theirs. Kaceyton was really good, but she wasn’t good enough.”
Kaceyton’s name got a real reaction, a couple of them even looked like they wanted to say something. The troll beside me glared at them and they immediately backed down and returned to sullen silence.
The bearded one looked at me. “Singing trolls? I had no idea there was such a thing.”
“Oh yes. They love singing. Hey, Flossie,” I called over, “how did that song go?”
Not needing to be asked twice when it came to putting on a show, Flossie jumped to her feet and reproduced Kaceyton’s song word for word. Maybe this was her special ability, being able to memorise song lyrics after one hearing.
It was solid rendition, aided by the trolls humming along and then joining in on the last line, which, I’m sure you recall, was FUCK YOU IN THE NECK. Rousing stuff. The guards were especially moved to draw their weapons like they expected a fight, but the trolls remained sitting and just applauded. Flossie took a bow.
“Seems like you guys know the lyrics,” I said.
“If Raviva lost to you it’s because he’s a fool. He always has been. He is no king, just a spoiled child with no sense of anything other than his own amusement. A king builds for the future. He protects his people. He demands justice.”
“Yes, but he isn’t the one sitting in a dungeon. Do you know how you got caught? It was those two.” I pointed at two of the trolls. “They attacked a girl and left her for dead. They didn’t make sure they’d killed her, didn’t try to hide the body or check to make sure no one had seen them. Just stabbed her and ran away.”
The troll looked over at the two I had indicated. They suddenly looked very nervous.
“And how do you know this?” He slowly turned his head to face me. “Were you hiding under the girl’s skirt?”
“Something like that.”
“Then I thank you for the information.” He turned back to the two trolls. “You have disappointed me for the last time.”
“No, Keezy, please,” they begged, “it didn’t happen like that.”
“If going around killing people is your idea of justice,” I said, “then I don’t think your Archfiend is much of a king either.”
“You know nothing about this world.”
“True.” I didn’t mind admitting it. “But you don’t know the kind of world I come from. We have wars too, and it’s rarely got anything to do with justice. Gullen thinks if he puts me in here I’ll be able to extract some information from you, find out what you lot are up to. But I already know what you’re up to.”
The troll stood up, which was intimidating. He towered over me. And that was as a human. If he changed into his true form his head would probably hit the ceiling.
“You’ve never been this forward in your fight with humans.” I got to my feet and brushed myself off. “A new way of thinking probably means a new man in charge. The old Archfiend probably died or retired. New guy wants to make his mark and sends out a conquering army. I don’t really care, one egomaniac tends to be the same as another, but whatever your role was, it’s done. You are of no use here, so why don’t you just go? Obviously you could escape if you wanted.”
How did I know all this? I didn’t. Maybe my special ability was bullshitting my way out of a tight spot. That at least would have some use. Mind you, I’d probably be more convincing if I wasn’t sweating buckets. Fortunately, dungeon lighting tends to be on the gloomy side.
“You want to know why we don’t leave? I’ll tell you. We were waiting for you.”
I hadn’t expected him to say that. “Me? You mean me, specifically.”
“The person who was able to detect our presence is worth further investigation, wouldn’t you say? Time to go.” He turned and grabbed the two soldiers who had stabbed Mandy and who had become rather panicky since I had pointed it out.
“Keezy, no, please.”
“You will stay behind and cover our retreat.”
With hardly any effort, he picked them up by the neck, one hand holding each, and pushed them against the wall. And then into it. They seemed to merge with the wall like it was made of jelly.
The guards realised something was up and one of them grabbed a rope and pulled it. Nothing happened, but perhaps an alarm bell rang somewhere. They didn’t open the cell door, they just watched. The dogs stuck their snouts through the bars and growled.
The troll called Keezy pulled the two others out of the wall and tossed them to the ground like dolls, leaving behind an indentation. He nodded at the other trolls who ran forward, changing into their troll forms. They stuck out their hands and pushed the walls aside, opening up the gap into a larger hole. They moved forward, creating a tunnel. It was incredibly fast, and surprisingly noiseless.
“Go.” Keezy pushed the two trolls who had got to their feet. They turned around, transforming into trolls, and walked through the bars.
Their bodies squeezed between the bars like Play-doh and reformed on the other side.
“Terminator 2,” whispered Maurice with gleaming eyes.
Fighting broke out. The guards attacked with swords to little effect. The dogs snapped and clawed but couldn’t get any purchase on the impenetrable troll hide. They were all swiftly put down. Whether they were dead or just knocked out, I couldn’t tell. Or maybe I didn’t want to know.
“If you guys are this strong,” I said, “couldn’t you take the city with just a few more trolls? Or do you have some weakness that stops you?”
Keezy was staring at me, and not in a loving way. I really should learn to keep my mouth shut.
“In.” He was pointing at the tunnel that had appeared.
Jenny stood up. “If he goes, so do we.”
The one good part of being taken by the trolls was that it would just be me. Good for the others to be left out of it. Good for me to have the others left out of it. Jenny had other ideas.
“We don’t need you,” said Keezy. “Stay here and enjoy living.”
“You do need us,” said Jenny. “You’ll find it a lot easier to get information out of him if you threaten those he cares about. I am his lover.”
All this time I had a lover and didn’t know it. If only someone had told me!
Keezy seemed unsure. What she said did make a certain kind of sense, if it was true. Maybe he was finding it hard to believe I’d managed to score with such a good-looking bird.
“Then you come too,” he said.
“I am also his lover,” said Claire.
“And me,” said Flossie.
“And me,” said Maurice.
“We are also intimate,” said Dudley.
It was like the scene in Spartacus where everyone says “I am Spartacus,” only more gay. Well, slightly.
“Do not be foolish,” said Keezy. “Which of you is his real lover?”
“I think it’s the big one at the back,” said one of the trolls, pointing at Dudley.
“What? Why do you think it’s him? Obviously it’s one of the girls.”
The troll shrugged.
“We don’t have time for this,” said Keezy. “We’ll take all of them and sort it out later.”
They all filed into the tunnel with big smiles on their faces like forcing their way onto my subway ride to doom was some kind of accomplishment. Idiots.
Did they really think they would be safer with me? I had a good mind to deliberately get them all killed, just to teach them a lesson. Not that I needed to try, it would happen soon enough.
The tunnel was already very long and we stumbled after the trolls digging us an escape route.
I stopped and looked back. The two other trolls were standing in the opening. They didn’t follow us. They changed into the wall and closed off the opening, plunging the tunnel into darkness.
Was that what being left behind meant? Being a wall for who knows how long?
There were sounds of my party bumping into each other. I created a ball of light and illuminated a troll face inches away from mine.
“Yes,” said Keezy, “definitely worth further investigation.”