The women gave a victorious yell as the dragon disappeared into the blue sky. As far as they were concerned they’d seen the monster off and songs would be sung about their heroism and valour. Idiots. All they’d really done was scare off a flying cow.
Even worse, they no longer looked at me like some feeble kid they had nothing to fear from. I was capable of taking on mighty beasts single-handed which meant one of two things. They’d either want me to do the jobs they didn’t want to do themselves, or they’d see me as a threat and want to put me in my place. If ever there was a time to leave the party early, it was now.
“So, Dragonslayer,” said Laney, “you really are the one who was sent to help us.”
“No, I wasn’t. You should keep looking, the guy you want is probably around here, somewhere. I have to find the rest of my party. And stop calling me Dragonslayer. It sounds corny.”
I’d already tried to get her to stop calling me Dragonslayer using logic (I hadn’t slayed any dragons) but that hadn’t worked, so now I was appealing to her desire to not seem uncool. She may have been a lunatic but she was still a teenage girl.
“Don’t worry, the legend of the Dragonslayer will never be corny. I’ll make sure everyone knows what you did here.”
Ugh. I preferred it when she called me Colin the Loser. Whatever gossip she spread, I was pretty sure it would bear little resemblance to what actually happened and do nothing but cause me grief.
“With you leading the liberation of Fengarad, men will flock to our cause.”
“When did it become our cause? It’s got nothing to do with me.” But she wasn’t listening. Her eyes had glazed over and in some dark recess of her addled mind she was seeing ticker tape parades in her honour.
“We will inform the Queen of what you did,” said Telma, looking pleased with herself. “The dragon won’t be so lucky next time.” I shook my head. Flying cow.
“You know, I could meet you in the city later.” Worth a shot. “I have some errands and stuff.”
“We insist you come with us. As our guest.” She placed her hand on the sword that was back in its scabbard but could easily be drawn again. How many dragons did a guy have to slay to get a little respect around here?
I was ‘escorted’ out of the clearing and into the trees. It was a warm day, as it usually was in Flatland, but under the dappled shade of the forest it was cool and quiet. It would have been quite a nice walk if we weren’t headed for the City of Missing Testicles.
The women were still excited about their encounter and were full of bravado.
“We should have cut off its head and presented it to the Queen.”
“Did you see the size of its wings? Imagine the armour we could have made from its skin.”
“That acid breath could eat through iron. We could make it into a weapon. I wager it could eat through stone walls, too.”
They nattered away, their claims about what they would do next time they fought a dragon becoming ever more exaggerated and ridiculous. I kept quiet and tried to keep my eyes open for an opportunity to give them the slip. It was quite gloomy under the forest canopy and if I could make myself as unnoticeable as possible—something I’d always excelled at—perhaps I’d be able to disappear into the shadows.
“Hoo hoo,” said Laney, suddenly appearing from under my armpit, or so it seemed. “This is exciting, isn’t it, Colin? You’re going to be presented to the Queen of Requbar as a great hero. You’ll be able to ask her for whatever you want. Even an army to retake Fengarad.”
“Why don’t you ask her? Isn’t that what you want?”
Laney pouted. “I have asked her. She says it isn’t the right time. We have to observe the enemy to gauge their strengths and weaknesses. Pah! I already know their weakness. Cold steel right up their—”
“Your Highness,” said Telma, waiting for us to catch up, “please don’t fall behind. We still don’t know why our guest is here or his true intentions. You would be safer up front.”
Laney rolled her eyes. “Guardian Telma, I assure you he is no threat and I fully know his intentions.” She gave me a sly sideways glance. I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean and I didn’t want to know. “We have sparred many times and he is yet to dominate me. In battle.”
I ignored the leer. What she said was true, although I wouldn’t call myself her sparring partner, more like her punching bag.
“Maybe so, but he has been to Monsterland and may have been compromised in some way. We need to take care.”
As much as I wanted them to take no notice of me, it was still annoying to be talked about like I wasn’t even here.
“Do you really think if I was an enemy agent, I’d tell you I’d been to Monsterland and met with the Archfiend?”
“No,” said Telma, “which is why it is the perfect cover.”
If this was the level of intelligence the Requbar army had to offer, the monsters should have the whole place under their power in no time. It’d all be over by Christmas.
“Brilliant logic, Guardian.” I knew I was being antagonistic and that sarcasm never went down with women, especially the ones who thought a lot of themselves, but I couldn’t help it. “If you’re so worried about what I might do to your city, all you need to do is call up the spires or ask Gullen Santan in Dargot. They’re the ones who sent me over there to risk my life for you people. Just send them a white raven or stick a note on the back of a hedgehog or however you people communicate with each other.’’
Telma stopped again and turned to me, hands on hips. “I didn’t mean to offend you—”
“But you did it anyway. I forgot to ask your role in the Requbar army. Head of the diplomatic service?”
“Dragonslayer, please—” Great, now she was doing it too, and purely to butter me up “—you must understand our position. We have to be extremely vigilant at this time of war. The enemy could be anywhere, take any form. I am merely being prudent.”
“You’re right,” I said. “People with poor judgement should always show prudence. I stand corrected.” I kept walking. Maybe if I got far enough ahead of them I could make a break for it. They were loaded down with heavy armour and even though they were built like Olympic athletes, there was always the chance they ran like girls.
After an hour and no chance to make a swift egress, we came to a road that was little more than a mud track rutted with decades, maybe centuries, of cartwheels. We followed its twists and turns, the mud drying to dirt. The road widened and suddenly became cobbled.
Up ahead it was filled with carts laden with goods, their large wheels groaning under the weight. Farmers taking produce and livestock to sell in the city. Traders on horseback with packs.
We appeared to have arrived during rush hour. The carts and horses moved slowly and we soon caught them up. The sounds of conversation and laughter ceased as our little party passed. The men avoided looking at the warrior women of Requbar, and had nervous expressions on their faces. At least they appeared to have all their important organs intact. Their voices were all reassuringly baritone.
There were also women on some of the carts. They were regular shapes and sizes. They also looked apprehensive as my Amazonian escorts strolled by. It almost put a smile on my face to know I wasn’t the only one to find these jacked-up women unpleasant to be around.
We crested a small hill and below us the city was a haze of light and shadow in the distance. It was hard to make out clearly because of what was behind it—a glittering sea. There were ships in a harbour and gulls circling overhead. Their cries had filled the air for the last couple of hours but I hadn’t really connected it to the sea and what that meant. Where did the boats sail to?
The city slowly took shape as we approached. At least there would be food here. I was ready for something to eat other than road dust.
Requbar was different to the other cities I had visited so far. For a start, there was no wall surrounding it. There was a tall hedge, interlaced with flowering vines.
It was a very colourful settlement, with plants growing everywhere. The centrepiece was a hill, on top of which there was a castle. But the hill itself was what caught your attention. It was covered in flowers of every colour.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said Laney. She sighed deeply. “It’s the perfect city.”
Yeah, perfect for a Disney princess in need of a playhouse. Most cities couldn’t be breached without giant catapults and siege machines. Here, a pair of secateurs and you were in.
Telma led us through twisted streets past shops and taverns, hanging baskets of flowers spilling over from every roof and awning. Hedges sculpted into the shape of animals stood guard on every corner. Fountains gurgled in picturesque squares.
And everywhere we went, conversation stopped and skittish looks were directed away from us. Mothers pulled their children aside, men acted like they were closely inspecting the cobbles at their feet.
As someone who knows a thing or two about feeling awkward, I could sense the unease that we were bringing into the city. I had no doubt my presence had nothing to do with the change in atmosphere. When I looked back, the people had gone back to acting normal, talking and joking, kids running around. The women around me, meanwhile, paid no attention to their fellow citizens. They marched eagerly and happily, their steps completely in synch. All they needed were some jackboots and they could have invaded Poland.
“The people don’t seem very happy, “ I said to Laney under my breath.
“What do you mean?” she practically screamed. “This is the happiest place in all of Flatland. And the number one honeymoon destination.” She raised her eyebrows at me. It’s acceptable to slap a child, right? I mean, not all the time, obviously, just if it’ll make you feel better.
“Ooh,” said Laney suddenly. “You there!” She was pointing at two men slouching outside a tavern. They looked tough, like they could handle themselves in a fight. The took one look at Laney waving at them and scarpered. They didn’t just walk away, they legged it.
“Oh,” said Laney sounding disappointed. “They must not have seen me.” They had definitely seen her. “Couple of prospective recruits for my army. I’m still getting the word out.”
“How many do you have signed up so far?”
“No, not including me.”
“Oh, well, it’s not the numbers that are important, it’s the size of their hearts.”
“I’m pretty sure the numbers are important, and everyone has roughly the same size heart. You don’t have anybody, do you?”
Laney’s mouth shrank to a tiny bud. “These things take time. War is no easy thing to leave your home and loved ones for. Once I have the first few, the rest will come.” She tossed her hair aside like she’d made her point and that was that. “You there!”
She had spotted another couple of men hanging around a street corner. These two looked like they were casing the house opposite for some light burglary. They didn’t run, they just lazily eyed-up the soldiers.
This didn’t go down well with Requbar’s finest. We came to a stop, possibly to teach these lads a lesson, but Laney was first to engage them.
“You look like fit fellows. Are you ready to defend the honour of Requbar and fight the evil that stalks this land?”
The two men pulled their cloth caps down lower and stared over Laney’s head. They were more interested in the Xena cosplayers.
“And if honour is not your calling,” continued Laney, hands on hips and head thrown back, “then there’s gold waiting to be claimed. What say you?”
They weren’t even listening to her.
“You don’t want their type riding into battle beside you,” said Telma. “There’s only one thing they’re good for.”
The women all reached behind them and pulled out wooden batons. Not the type cheerleaders throw about, more’s the pity. I wouldn’t have complained if this turned out to be a city where people settled their differences with dance battles, the way it should be. The Battle of the Five Armies would have been very different if the elves opened with synchronised popping and locking, and the orcs answered with a barrage of krumping.
No such luck, though. These batons were short and stumpy and looked well used.
“Please wait,” said Laney. “I think this one’s interested.”
The interested one suddenly had a knife in his hand and was reaching out with his other hand. Laney hardly moved, just shifted her head so the lunging hand missed her. She grabbed the wrist, twisted her body and kicked the man in the ankle.
It was a short, sharp kick that knocked his foot off the ground and into his other one, sending them both into the air. At the same time, she pulled him forward by the wrist so he was horizontal as he fell. He met the ground face first.
“You’ll be provided with full training in weapons and hand-to-hand combat,” she said to the prone man.
“Touch a member of the royal house will you?” said Telma.
The second man was doing his best to give the impression he had nothing to do with the first, didn’t even know him. It didn’t help. The women had them both surrounded and blows rained down.
I imagine any woman watching the two clearly objectionable blokes getting what they deserved would cheer on the ladies and see it as justice.
That wasn’t what was happening here. These women were wilding out because they knew they could get away with it, the same reason men do it. What I couldn’t figure out was why the men had decided to provoke them when they undoubtedly knew what would happen.
This seemed like an ideal time to exit stage left. The soldiers were deeply involved in making the city a safer place and Laney was still trying to make her sales pitch through the sound of flesh being pummelled. I turned around and walked off.
No running, just a gentle stroll in the other direction. I had no place to go, but there had to be some nook or alley I could duck into.
The problem was the wide streets and spacious planning made it very hard to slip out of view. Everything was open and uncluttered. Even the flowering bushes were too neatly pruned to use as a hiding place.
Somewhere behind me my name was called out. Well, not my name exactly. Dragonslayer. I ignored it and eased my way around a corner ready to start sprinting as soon as I spotted something worth running towards.
I turned the corner and froze. In front of me stood more than a dozen female soldiers, all armed with swords and shields, and on the ground was the swollen, bloated body of a dead dog. They all glared at me (even the dead dog) and looked ready to beat the shit out of me, no questions asked. Time to break out my top rock?