The city of Dargot is built over a network of tunnels. I don’t know if they were created by natural means or man-made, or possibly something else entirely, but our tunnel soon came out in another, longer and bigger one.
I will say the tunnel made by troll hands had a solid feel to it. The walls were a bit rough, with claw-like marks gouged into them, but you didn’t get the impression the whole thing was about to fall on your head.
The tunnel we ended up in did not give me the same sense of security. Bits fell off the roof and splashed into the knee-deep water as we sloshed along after the trolls. They at least seemed to know where they were going.
I released my ball of light and it bounced along the roof of the tunnel. It helped us see where we were going but it also showed us plenty of other, less helpful things. We were basically in the city sewers and the stuff floating alongside us weren’t paper boats and lost goldfish.
The water gushed along at a fair speed, steadily rising. Most likely this was all connected to the Underland Sea, but whether the waters were flowing towards it or away from it, I had no idea.
When the water got to waist height, I started to worry. For all I knew, trolls didn’t breathe air and were fine walking along submerged. But they stopped in the middle of the tunnel and started a new tunnel that sloped upwards.
We were only too happy to follow and leave the wading behind. I dragged my ball of light into the new tunnel, impressing everyone with my ball-handling skills (don’t even start). It was a concern having the trolls know so much about what I could do. I was happiest being underestimated, and that would no longer be the case.
The other person who showed a lot of interest in my abilities was Jenny. She would stare up at the ball of light, then at me, then back at the light. Probably trying to figure out how I was doing it. I was well aware of the gleam in her eye when she looked at me.
Which is understandable. If you saw guy doing what I could do, you’d be impressed too. Women like guys who impress them, right? If Jenny thought what I could do was cool, I should have been happy, you’re probably thinking.
Who doesn’t want a pretty girl to think they’re cool?
I didn’t feel so great about it.
A handsome face and a big dong are appealing to a woman, I’m sure, but I don’t think they matter as much as other factors. Stability, security, status—it varies from woman to woman, depending on their needs and tastes (please call Colin’s Landscaping Services for all you hedging needs) but I don’t think it’s too controversial a statement to say a successful guy will attract more attention from girls than a good-looking one.
Since I arrived in this world, my stock had risen considerably. I wasn’t exactly an alpha, but I was a leader of sorts, and I could do things other people couldn’t.
Which is all to say, a girl like Jenny who I would have no chance with back home, I might actually have a decent shot at here. You know, because I’m special. My glowing balls and twinkling fingers meant I could be in there.
But what if those abilities went away? Would she still be interested in me?
Any real man probably wouldn’t care. As long as she’s interested, what does it matter why? Get in there!
I wish I could think like that.
If a guy works hard, maybe starts his own business, and makes a million quid, that money is a representation of what he’s capable of. If another guy buys a lottery ticket and wins a million quid, he has the same amount of money, but that money represents jack shit.
I am not suggesting women are all golddiggers. What I’m saying is that a woman who suddenly falls madly in love with you when she find out you’re a millionaire, may just as suddenly fall out of love with you once the money’s all gone.
I didn’t think my flashy little tricks were something I’d earned. They fell into my lap and suddenly I was belle of the ball. At midnight I’d turn back into a pumpkin, and then who’d want to dance with me?
Am I calling Jenny shallow? Maybe. It’s human nature, though. Men are the same. If she had some horrible accident and lost her looks, would I still be as keen on her?
The trolls stopped and motioned for us to keep quiet, which felt a bit unnecessary. No one had spoken in the last half hour. I think the others were starting to realise what they had gotten themselves into.
One of the trolls pushed up on the roof of the tunnel and a hole opened, letting in light. He stuck his head out and then quickly pulled it back in, using his hands to cover the hole. He nodded at Keezy.
“Wait here,” said Keezy. He reached up and widened the hole, and then pulled himself out.
Once he’d left, two of the trolls used their hands to cover the hole while the remaining one kept an eye on us.
We waited for what seemed an age, but was probably more like ten minutes, breathing in the earthy smells of freshly dug tunnel. The ball of light slowly faded and then went out.
There was a rumbling sound above. The trolls grabbed us in turn and unceremoniously boosted us through the hole.
We came out in an alley. A covered wagon pulled by two horses was blocking the entrance, and also hiding us from view. Sitting up front was a portly merchant, red-faced and appropriately dressed.
“Get in the back and don’t make any noise,” he said in a jovial voice. His eyes, however, suggested he’d be happy to punch me in the face if I didn’t comply.
The wagon creaked and groaned as we climbed aboard. A sheet came down over the back and we were alone in a dim yellow light. Outside there was the stamp of hooves and jingle of harness; and a discussion in low voices too quiet to be heard clearly.
“I’m glad we won’t have to walk,” said Jenny.
“We’re all going to die in Monsterland,” I said, “but at least we’ll be nice and fresh when we get there.”
There was an awkward pause while they looked at each other, and then Claire said, “No, we won’t die.”
And they all agreed with her!
“What possible reason could you have for thinking that?” I wasn’t being rhetorical, I genuinely wanted to know.
Claire shrugged. “I don’t know, I just have a feeling.”
They all nodded like this was a reasonable answer. It was the most amazing example of mass denial I’d ever seen. They were acting like I’d said it might rain later and they were fine with not having a brolly. It’s only rain, after all.
Yeah, a rain of blood and death and severed limbs! Their lack of awareness of the danger they were in was mindboggling.
No point getting annoyed. Denial was better than panic, after all. I needed to be patient and wait for the right time do what all great leaders did with the faith of their followers—use it against them.
The back opened up and we were joined by three merchants. The whole wagon seemed to sink into the ground as they sat down. The mood changed to a more apprehensive and nervous one, which cheered me up a little.
The more time we spent with the trolls, the more amazed I was by their ability to shapeshift. Jenny might think what I could do was cool, but it was amateur-hour stuff compared to what the trolls were capable of. Of course, by my previous logic, that meant Jenny should have been even more interested in a relationship with a troll than with me, but I don’t think that’s how it works once you go outside of the human race. Dinner and a movie, maybe.
Getting out of the city proved to be much easier than I’d expected. We simply rode out without being stopped. I had no doubt Gullen knew we had escaped and were headed out of the city. Our smooth departure was probably only possible because that’s what he wanted.
We were headed to Monsterland, escorted by monsters. He had failed to keep a hostage to ensure our return, but we were hardly in a position to make a quick getaway. And I wouldn’t put it past him to have some other way to keep tabs on us.
Once we were on the open road, the mood gradually changed from nervous huddling to boredom and whining about needing a toilet break. Trolls, as far as I could tell, did not piss or shit. I can’t be sure about that, but if they did do it, they did it very differently to us.
They agreed to stop and let us relieve ourselves, mostly because we were on the verge of turning the wagon into a porta potty. However, since we were their prisoners, they insisted on watching us while we did it, which didn’t go down well. And not just with the girls. None of us could go with four large men impatiently staring at us with our pants down.
Eventually, we convinced them to transform into shrubbery or trees or some woodland creatures so we could at least pretend to have privacy. Even though we knew they were around and keeping an eye on us, not being able to see them finally gave my kidneys the confidence to do their job.
I was intrigued by the trolls’ ability to change into just about anything. Scientifically speaking it shouldn’t have been possible. They didn’t only change their faces, but their size too. Where did the excess mass go?
With this sort of power at their disposal, it was a wonder the trolls hadn’t enabled the complete takeover of all the human cities. Not only could they look like anyone, they seemed to be virtually indestructible. If they had a weakness that stopped them from simply wiping humanity off the surface of this world, it had to be a pretty big one.
I would have loved to know what that secret was, but it wasn’t like I could just ask them.
“So I guess you must have some crazy vulnerability,” said Maurice to the troll sitting next to him.
We had been travelling for three days, only stopping to rest the horses. Otherwise we were constantly on the move, even at night. You couldn’t really sleep properly as the wagon bumped and jiggled over every rut in the road. We were all a bit groggy and, in Maurice’s case, emboldened by boredom.
“I mean, with your skills, you could just walk into any town or city and destroy it from the inside. No one would even know you were there. So it must be something pretty bad.”
The troll, who was maintaining the appearance of a portly, balding merchant even though there was no one around to appreciate the excellent character work and dedication to his art, ignored Maurice.
“You don’t eat, you don’t sleep, nothing can hurt you… it’s amazing.”
“We can be hurt,” said the troll. He didn’t elaborate.
“Is it fire? No? Sunlight? Actually, we’ve seen you in the sun, so it can’t be that. Water… no that would be silly. Allergies?”
“You ask too many questions.” Understatement of the year.
“Is it something to do with how dogs can tell you aren’t human? Terminators had the same problem.”
The troll turned and looked at Maurice for the first time. I thought perhaps we were about to lose Batman for good. Of course we weren’t. Batman never dies.
“What are Terminators?”
Normally for this kind of launch you need two people to turn their keys at the same time. Maurice sat up, knocking Claire off his shoulder where she had been dozing, and proceeded to recount the whole movie. I don’t mean a summary. I mean:
“We’re in an alley. Strange crackles of light, and there’s a naked man, crouching. He has huge muscles.”
He went through it scene by scene. Once he got going there was no stopping him. He did a passable Arnie impression (doesn’t everyone?) and had memorised all the dialogue. What Flossie was to songs, Maurice was to movies.
The trolls loved it. The next day, he did Terminator 2. The Terminator turning hero pleased them no end. Arnie’s farewell salute as he disappeared into the vat of molten lead brought tears to their eyes.
“Now Terminator 3,” they insisted.
“There is not Terminator 3,” said Maurice.
Flossie raised her hand. “But ah saw it at the—”
“No. You. Didn’t,” insisted Maurice in no uncertain terms. “Only two Terminator movies were ever made.”
“Oh ah,” said Flossie, grabbing onto Dudley’s arm and backing away from Maurice’s intense glare. “Mah mistake.”
After five days the horses were set free (although they just stood there after being unharnessed) and the wagon was hidden, by which I mean it was smashed into kindling and scattered to the winds.
We proceeded on foot through the woods. Much to our relief, trolls moved fairly slowly so even though we were constantly on the move, it wasn’t so much a death march, more of a death stroll.
We had none of our weapons or equipment, but starting a fire was easy enough and the trolls caught wild animals for us to cook—deer, wild pig, a weird otter thing. How they went about it (they didn’t have weapons either) I don’t know. We stopped long enough to cook it, and then we were off again. Water wasn’t a problem either. The trolls somehow always knew where to find a river or spring.
At night we stopped to rest, because we had to. The trolls stood around waiting for us to wake up. The first couple of nights we hardly got any sleep, but like most things, we got used to it.
After several days and nights and spirited retellings of Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and all three Star Wars (because only three were ever made) courtesy of Maurice, with theme songs performed by Flossie (with lyrics!), we arrived at our destination. Or at least the first one—the border with Monsterland.
And what a well-defined border it was. A fissure that cut a giant canyon into the earth. Us on this side, them on the other. The only visible way across was a single, long, rather fragile-looking rope bridge.
A large fort sat on the end of the bridge on our side. You had to go through the fort to access the bridge.
And on the far side, a dark shape blocked off their end of the bridge. It was hard to make out clearly at such a long distance, but it was big. It didn’t look like a building, at least not a well constructed one. It was all uneven with bits sticking out at strange angles. And then it moved. It looked like it was scratching itself.
“What is that?” I asked Keezy.
“That is the giant who guards the bridge,” he said. “His name is Gargantua.”
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Back on Monday.
Oh, and if you want something else to read, you could try my other story called Grin the Cheat.