The smaller creatures didn’t look too intimidating. About the size of monkeys, although in various shapes.
A raccoonish thing sporting a beard and long hair with a centre parting was busy hammering tent poles into the ground.
A creature resembling a squirrel with a bushy tail but the face of one of those big-nosed monkeys scampered through branches, tying off vines that held up the roof of some kind of stall.
Some of them wore clothes—little waistcoats with pockets, or bandoliers with tools and weapons hanging from them—and I could see Flossie’s eyes expanding with glee. She was practically salivating at the prospect of grabbing one and giving him a cuddle. Right before he throttled her with his adorable human-like hands and ate her face.
The larger creatures were less endearing. Some of them were a mixture of human and beast, and not cute like a cat-girl with ears and tail and sexy human body. More like a large cat that decided to walk upright and bulked up in certain areas to be able to do it. Massive thighs, elongated feet, extra girth around the waist for balance. They looked odd, but more than capable of kicking the shit out of you.
Their hands tended to be the most human thing about them, and their faces the least.
There were also a number of more humanoid races, built like us but with very peculiar faces. They had eyes and ears and noses, as you would expect, but they were in odd proportions, or somehow warped to look more alien. The occasional tusk or horn added to their inhuman qualities.
New buildings appeared every few seconds. As we approached the village, so it reached out to envelop us.
Irregular bits of wood and branch were slammed into the ground, tied together and covered with animal hides. Fires were lit, food was roasted, cups were filled.
The noise of banging and crashing as things went up (and occasionally fell down) was quickly replaced by shouts and laughter. Cries of those selling their wares—Grilled meat! Lucky totems! Leather belts!—filled the air.
Everyone was busy, everyone was rushed off their feet. No one paid any attention to us.
Maybe they were used to seeing human prisoners. Maybe the five thousand soldiers who had disappeared from the fort had been brought through here and a couple more weren’t worth their attention. Whatever the reason, we followed Keezy through the haphazard pathways between newly raised shacks and tents without being abused or molested.
Dank smoke from a fire occasionally drifted into our path making us cough and tear up, or a couple of beastmen might shout for us to get out of the way as they hurried past carrying large buckets of water from the lake, but other than that no mind was paid to us.
Once we’d entered its boundary, the village seemed a lot bigger than it had as we approached. Possibly because it was constantly being added to. Keezy hadn’t said where exactly we were headed, but he seemed to be moving with purpose so we stuck close.
I started to notice some muttering behind us. As I looked back, some of the relentless industry had ceased to watch us. Their faces didn’t look welcoming, although I’m not sure you can ever look welcoming with three horns coming out of your forehead and a mouth full of shark teeth.
We still had the weapons we had taken from the fort armoury. Keezy had never confiscated them, whether because other things had preoccupied his mind, or he just didn’t see us as a risk, armed or otherwise, I didn’t know. But even with sword and knife, I doubted we’d last more than a few seconds against these monsters.
Which may have been prejudice on my part. What reason did I have to assume they were violent, bloodthirsty savages? I mean, apart from the horns and the teeth and the growling.
I moved up a bit closer to Keezy. “If they attack us, you’re going to stop them, right?”
“It’s not you they’re concerned about,” said Keezy.
When I took a closer look, I realised they were all glaring at the rear of our train. At Kungen. Fortunately, the weaving path we took quickly left our unsettled observers behind, although new ones replaced them after every bend.
Our destination finally appeared ahead of us. Keezy didn’t say anything, but the size of the impromptu construct and the clamour around it suggested it was the hub of the village.
Fallen trees formed a bar with stumps acting as stools. Barrels of what was probably alcohol sat on top of each other. Drinks were being served and rapidly drunk. A band played music on homemade instruments in one corner. An unidentifiable animal roasted on a spit in another.
Keezy walked up to the bar. “Where’s Vamalyn?”
The woman (well, female wolf-person thing) behind the bar tilted her head at the gap between the barrels behind her.
“Give them drinks. Put it on my tab.”
I realised I had no idea what they used for payment here. Coins? I also realised that it had suddenly gone very quiet. The raucous noise and activity had faded to nothing and all eyes were on us. Or rather, they were on Kungen.
“I know what you’re all thinking,” said Keezy. “I am going to talk to Vamalyn now to sort it out. Until then, the truce still holds. Even for him.” He looked around like he was daring anyone to disagree with him. No one said anything.
“Wait here,” said Keezy, like we might have plans to leave, and then he slipped behind the bar.
The wolfgirl placed a number of cups on the bar and filled them with a red-brown liquid. I decided to ignore the atmosphere of impending lynch mob and picked up a cup. There were bits floating in it and the sharp smell curled the hairs in my nose. You couldn’t really afford to be fussy when you were roughing it in a land full of monsters, so I necked it.
It tasted a bit like mulled wine, but with bits in it. You might be thinking, but mulled wine has bits in it. Not that wriggle it doesn’t.
The others sat down alongside me and tried the drinks. Kungen slid away to the far end which was somewhat hidden behind a shrub, and sank into the shadows. Can’t say I blamed him. The atmosphere was still pretty murderous.
“What I think,” said Maurice, “is that this place is like Africa.”
I turned to look at him. Where was this going?
“When there’s a drought,” he continued, “all the animals gather around any waterhole that’s left, and they don’t fight or kill each other. Lions, zebra, wildebeest, hyenas—they all call a truce and leave each other alone while they drink. I think this place is like that.”
I looked around. There was an assortment of monsters, for sure. Would they try to eat each other if there wasn’t a truce in place?
“Poor Kungen,” said Flossie. “He looks so sad.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a bit of a downer, isn’t he? The whole place was rocking until he turned up.”
“He’s like the troll version of you,” said Claire.
“Really? We’re surrounded by monsters, probably on our way to get killed by the boss monster, and you still think now’s the time to put the boot in?”
“I’m not putting the boot in,” said Claire, looking a bit offended by the accusation. Which only pissed me off more. “I just mean you might be able to relate to what he’s going through.”
“Because everywhere I go, people end up depressed and miserable, too?”
“Exactly,” said Claire, pleased that I’d understood her point so well. The others also nodded along.
I picked up my cup, which had been refilled and was once again a swimming pool for who knows what and moved down the bar. I sat down next to Kungen who looked like the world was going to end tomorrow and he wished it would hurry up.
“What do you want?” he muttered.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s just less depressing over here.” I looked back at my party laughing and chatting away. Friday night down the West End, kebabs and chips later. Nothing could really spoil life for them while they had each other. Must be nice.
“You shouldn’t be seen with me,” said Kungen, his words drowning in self-pity.
The others didn’t get me, but Kungen, he got me. He knew what it was like to be on your own, no one wanting you around. No one to offer you a blow job, not even on your birthday. I was tearing up just thinking about it.
“I could probably get that lump of brass out of your shoulder if I had a chisel and hammer,” I offered. “Make it less obvious.”
“It doesn’t matter. They can all see what I am now. All they feel is fear they might catch it off me.”
“I thought only trolls were weak to brass.”
“Yes,” said Kungen bitterly, “but fear doesn’t need to make sense.”
I glanced around at the gathered crowd drinking and eating. The eyes watching us—and there were quite a few—were filled with fear as he claimed. “Why don’t you just leave?”
“And go where?”
“Doesn’t matter, does it? Nobody will care.”
He nodded and sipped at his brew ‘n’ chew. “If I go now, maybe the jabberwock will take care of things for me.”
“They roam the wilderness after the sun goes down.”
I’d read ‘Jabberwocky’ at school, so I knew the jabberwock wasn’t a mythical creature from aeons past. It was made up by a guy not very long ago. From what I could remember, he never really described what it looked like in the poem.
“What do they look like, these jabberwocks?”
“No one has ever seen one and lived,” said Kungen.
There was a time when I would have seen this as further proof that this was a game with monsters based on Earth myth and fable. But now I was more inclined to think it was down to whatever it was that translated the language for us.
Trolls, ogres, these things weren’t the same as the ones from back home, but they were close enough that it was a reasonable interpretation.
Jabberwocks, a mysterious and deadly creature. Close enough.
I was thinking this over and wondering if there was any way to use it to my advantage, when a shadow fell over me. I turned to find a large, sweaty individual breathing heavily. He could use a freshmint. It was hard to tell in the torchlight, but I think he had green skin. And a very expressive tail that swished about behind him.
“We don’t want your kind here,” he said in between grunts and hisses. He was talking to Kungen.
Kungen nodded. “I know.”
“Then leave. You’re scaring the children.”
I hadn’t seen any children, but then, I didn’t know what their children looked like, so maybe I had.
“You’re… an… an abomination.” I think he’d been practicing the word before he came over.
“Okay,” I said, “we get it. You’re all good people, he’s a monster. Thanks, we’ll be leaving in the morning. Okay?” I think the wine was a bit stronger than I’d first thought.
He pointed one of his three fingers at me. “Don’t think Keezy will stop you dying in your sleep.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “You know he’s taking us to see the Archfiend, right? You want to be the one who disappointed the Archfiend.” I felt this was a pretty good line to take. They must all have been terrified of the big bad, right?
“Who,” said the hulking beast, “is this Archfiend?”
Not quite the way I had envisioned things going.
“He means Cheng,” said Kungen. He turned to me. “Only your lot call him the Archfiend.”
“Ohhh,” said my new friend, “you’re going to see Cheng. He won’t mind losing one or two humans in transit. We have a very nice fighting pit, you know? And I’ve never lost in mortal combat.”
“I know,” I said. “No one here has lost in mortal combat. If they had, they wouldn’t be here, because they’d be dead. That’s what mortal combat means—a fight to the death.” I rose to my feet, taking another swig of my drink—good stuff. “For those of you worried about what you might catch with this troll around, you should be far more concerned about being infected with stupidity by this idiot. Next time you want to challenge me to a fight, do it with proper words that make sense. Now, GET OUT!” Which was an odd thing to say since we were already outside.
My challenger looked mortified. He turned around and shuffled away with his tail between his legs. Literally. Criticism of his vocabulary was his weak spot, it seemed.
I sat back down. “People, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t get transported to a fantasy world to get away from them. More wine please.”
Kungen shook his head at me, too depressed to even say thanks for getting rid of the brute. I guess that’s what it’s like when you have everything and lose it. Crushing.
Which is why my way is so much better. When you have nothing, it doesn’t hurt at all when someone threatens to take it from you.
Keezy reappeared and spoke to the others. They responded in high spirits so I didn’t think it was bad news, but then you couldn’t really tell with this lot.
You’ll be executed after breakfast.
Oh, can I have muffins?
Jenny came over. “Keezy’s arranged somewhere for us to sleep. Fancy sharing a tent?”
Ah, the universe was trying to fit me up. Give me something I wanted for myself, so that it could then snatch it back, leaving me bereft and broken.
“Sure,” I said grabbing my cup. “But try not to snore too much, love.” I stomped off. She hadn’t said where we’d be sleeping, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Onward!
I don’t know how long I slept—or how I got to the tent—but when my eyes opened it was still dark, and a lot quieter than before. My head throbbed like a motherfucker. There was a girl’s arm across my chest. I shoved it aside. The universe would have to do better than that. I squinted and tried to focus on the large figure standing over me.
“Wake up,” said Keezy.
“Mm. Are we leaving?” There were plenty of reasons why we might have to skip out in the middle of the night.
“It’s Ku… It’s my brother. He’s gone.”
I slowly sat up. Jenny stirred beside me. “What’s going on?” she mumbled.
“Kungen’s run off,” I said. “Where’d he go?”
“I don’t know,” said Keezy. “Into the night. He won’t last long.”
“No, I suppose not. And why are you telling me this?”
“I’m going after him,” said Keezy. Brotherly love had apparently reemerged.
“Okay, well good luck,” I said. “What should we do if you don’t come back?” Being stuck behind enemy lines without an escort was going to make life tricky. Perhaps we could get Maurice and Claire to share their masks and disguise ourselves as the beast equivalent of sexual deviants.
“I want you to help me,” said Keezy.
“You want me to go out there with the jabberwock? Why would I do that? He isn’t my brother.”
I felt Jenny grab a handful of my shirt and pull. I’m not sure what message she was trying to impart, but she could go fuck herself if she thought I was going jabberwock-dodging in the wee hours.
“The jabberwock shy away from bright light. If you use your magic, we could find him and keep the jabberwock at bay at the same time.”
It was definitely a reasonable plan. “I still don’t see what I gain from helping you. Will it even make a difference? If he’s had enough and wants to end it all, he’ll just find another way.”
“Help me,” said Keezy, “and I’ll take you back across the border.”
That sounded slightly more interesting. “You think we’ll be able to get across the bridge with Gideon and the others waiting for us?”
“There… there is another way, known only to the trolls. It will enable you to go where you will. Dargot, Fengarad, some other place. Undetected.”
A way back to Flatland, avoiding trouble and, more importantly Gullen. And all I needed to do was find a suicidal troll while monsters in the dark tried to kill us. What could possibly go wrong?
Looking for something else to read while you wait for the next chapter? Try my new series of short stories about Grin the Cheat.