Gullen stood up but the stick he’d been sitting on remained protruding from the ground. It had handles that opened up into a seat—not exactly a James Bond gadget, but it still looked pretty useful.
What better in the middle of a desperate situation than somewhere to have a sit-down and catch your breath? No need to sit on the ground like a filthy pleb when you’ve brought your own chair! I added it to my list of useful things I’d get once my life wasn’t a relentless shit storm. So, never.
“Nyx? What the fuck? You were supposed to keep the dragon hidden, not invite guests over.”
Nyx, looking a bit woozy from being at Ground Zero when the dragon went off, smiled weakly. “He said he was a friend of yours.”
“And so I am. So I am. My dear friends,” said Gullen. “We meet again. I couldn’t be more delighted, I feared you were all dead, horribly dismembered and lying in a pool of your own blood. Lovely to see you.”
“I wish I could say the same, Gullen.”
“Oh?” He looked a bit hurt. “I thought we parted on good terms.”
“Yes, everything was hunky dory, until your boss blew up the mountain we were on. I’d sorted everything out, peace in our time, and you ruined everything.” I had decided to go on the offensive. He couldn’t be mad at me if I was madder at him.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Gullen. “Are you saying we’re responsible for what happened in Monsterland?”
“Yes! That’s what I’m saying. Who do you think blew the mountain up?”
“Well, we can get to the bottom of things back at my place. I’m very much looking forward to hearing all about it, and I’m sure you could all use a hot bath and a warm meal.”
He was being very genial and pleasant. Other than the six demon dogs sitting there waiting for the order to rip us to shreds, it was quite the hospitable reception.
I didn’t want to go with him, for the obvious life-preserving reasons, but there didn’t seem to be many options. The dragon was snoozing, apparently very happy to be sharing its bed with the Lord of Potholes and his Alsatians of Doom. And Keezy wasn’t much better. He’d started acting nervous once the dogs appeared. They were able to tell he was a troll, but I didn’t think that was the issue. It was more the metal in their teeth. I began to understand how Gullen had been able to capture the trolls.
“We’ll just be wasting time if we go back with you now. I’m trying to stop this war before it ends up killing us all. And before Peter decides he’s got a better idea, and kills us all to save us from being killed.”
“You know, I really can’t allow you to pass through my city and not spend at least one night under my roof. My manners simply won’t allow it. Rules of hospitality, you know?”
If Gullen only wanted one night that meant he only needed one night for whatever he planned to do with us. At least it would be quick.
“No,” said Flossie. She stepped out in front of me, hands on hips, determination on her face. “We’ve got to find Dudley. We don’t have time to play with the likes of yo’.” She was cross and didn’t seem to care in the least about what Gullen might do to her.
“Ah, I see,” said Gullen, a little taken aback by the pint-sized hurricane blowing his way. “He’s the tall boy, is he? I was wondering where he’d got to. Perhaps I can help you locate him. I do have extensive information gathering services at my disposal.”
It sounded like a reasonable offer. We had literally no idea where Dudley was or where to even start looking. Gullen could very well be of use, if he wanted to be.
“Your services aren’t good enough,” said Flossie very flatly.
“I assure you—”
“It were your brilliant idea to send us to Monsterland in the first place. Then yo’ made us take that mad bint who nearly got us all killed. That’s how good your services are. Not very.”
The mad bint she was talking about was Roona, the girl Gullen had sent as Cheng’s would-be bride, and also his would-be assassin. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
“We can do this better on our own,” said Flossie emphatically. “No offence, but your lot aren’t up to it. This is a job for professionals.”
I wondered who she meant. Certainly wasn’t us.
Gullen smirked. It was very condescending. He didn’t take Flossie seriously, and under most circumstances I would see his point. How could someone like her hope to challenge someone as accomplished in the art of being a total shit as Gullen?
“And yo’ can wipe that smirk off your face. Ah’m not making requests, Ah’m telling yo’ what’s what. Yo’ do as Ah say or Ah’ll tell mah dragon to eat you.”
Gullen looked over at the large but unconscious dragon snoring away and the smirk broadened across his face. It didn’t turn into a smile, it was just a smirk on a bigger canvas.
“My dear girl, I may not be an expert on dragons—to be honest, this is the first one I’ve seen in the flesh—but my initial impression, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that the creature is a herbivore.”
You had to hand it to the man, he had a sharp eye.
“That’s right,” said Flossie. “He’s got big, flat teeth for chomping on grass and leaves. Which is why it won’t be a quick bite and swallow, it’ll take time. Grinding and chewing and making your body nice and soft so he can get yo’ down. Might have to regurgitate yo’ a couple of times, yo’ look like yo’ might be a little chewy.”
She was only a little thing, but as she stood there it felt like she was getting bigger. And letting off a weird vibe. Killing intent, I’d call it. The dogs sat up, alert. They sensed a threat but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Not the chubby girl, surely?
“And as for your pups, Ah like dogs, I do. But not as much as Ah like mah Dudley. Yo’ can tell them from me, if they get in mah way, mah dragon’s going to snap them into doggy biscuits.” She turned her attention to the dogs. “Don’t yo’ mess with mah dragon!” she warned them with a wagging finger.
The dogs tilted their heads at her, confused. They probably weren’t used to being told off by their food.
Gullen adjusted his glasses and looked no less confused than the dogs. “You’re very insistent, aren’t you. I can also be insistent.”
The dogs stood up with serious looks on their faces. I know how dumb that sounds, but something in their expressions seemed to be saying it was time to go to work.
Normally, I would have stopped her (either that, or used her as a distraction and legged it) but finally I was able to see what was different about her. Ever since I’d met up with her, she hadn’t been the same Flossie I’d known all this time.
Back in the troll caves, I thought she was just getting a bit overconfident. We’d managed to survive some very unfavourable odds and it had gone to her head a bit. Made her think she had as much right to call the shots as anyone, leading to much dumb decisions and an attempt to force me to do things her way. In some rare cases, meek women get into a relationship and the love and security provided turns them into horrendous bossy boots. Obviously, I’m talking about something extremely unusual and out of the ordinary. I’m sure you’ve never encountered anything like that, it being so very, very uncommon, but it does happen, hard as it is to believe.
That’s what I thought Flossie was going through. But now I could see that was not the issue here. She wasn’t overconfident, she was terrified. The way she held her fists tightened by her side, the set of her jaw, the glare in her eye—it was all an attempt to stop the fear overwhelming her. The terror came from not knowing where Dudley was. The fear of not knowing if he was alive or dead, if he was in some horrible situation waiting for someone to come save him. One extra second wasted could be the difference between getting there in time and getting there in tears. She was more afraid of never seeing him again than anything Gullen or his dogs could do to her. Desperation can be more powerful than bravery. And just as dumb.
“Vikchutni!” bellowed Flossie.
The dragon raised its head, swung it around on its long neck so it faced the stand off between Flossie and six enormous hounds, and then it mooed.
It would have been more impressive if it had roared or shrieked or made some other monstrous sound. To be fair, it did moo very loudly, but a silent stare might have been the better choice.
“Okay, I think we’ve wasted enough time on this,” I said, pulling Flossie back. I wasn’t putting myself in her place to protect her, I was making sure she didn’t set the dogs off, to protect me. “There’s one thing you can’t disagree with, and that’s what she said about you guys not knowing what you’re doing. There’s monsters everywhere and it’s your fault. We have to go, now, and if you don’t like it, send someone with us. Where’s Biadet? I know she’s around here somewhere. You couldn’t send her to Monsterland with us, but I know she’s been to Fengarad before. We’re going there and we’re going to see the man in the spire. He can tell us what he wants himself.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” said Biadet, stepping out from behind Gullen.
“You do?” said Gullen. Surprised by the statement, surprised by her appearance, who knows?
“I think they will be well received in the spire. I don’t mind escorting them there.”
Gullen considered it. Then he shook his head. “Very well. Off you go, then.” He began putting on leather gloves, looking a little sad and disappointed. Another night alone in the torture chamber.
I gave the others a nod to get on the dragon before he changed his mind.
“Oh, not the troll,” said Gullen. The dogs were back on high alert.
Keezy stopped moving, anxiously watching the dogs.
“We need him,” I said. “What do you think we’re going to do if we get in a fight? Let the girls nag them to death?”
“What did you have to say that for?” said Claire. “You don’t have to throw us under the bus every single time.”
“Yeah, Ah don’t nag. Ah’m nice.”
“You should apologise,” said Jenny.
“See what I mean? Nag, nag, nag.” Nice of them to provide examples. Almost like they did it on purpose to back me up. Which is of course ridiculous.
“But you have Biadet, now,” said Gullen smugly. “I’m sure she’ll protect you.”
Damn, not a bad counter. “No, she’ll do whatever she thinks is best. I need someone to do what they’re told. When was the last time she followed your orders to the letter?”
This did seem to strike a chord with him. What I knew of Biadet, little as it was, had made me think she was less than an ideal subordinate. I knew how frustrating that could be. I shared a moment of mutual identification with him, two men held back by lousy support.
“Yes, yes, I see your point. Very well, have fun. I look forward to our next encounter, Colin.” He pulled the stick out of the mud and the seat snapped shut into a handle. He turned and walked off, the dogs trotting after him.
The air left my body and I felt like a wet rag.
“Good job,” said Maurice, patting me on the back. At least someone appreciated me.
“Are we going to find Dudley now?”
“Yes, Floss, we are.”
She nodded once. I could see she was shaking under there, the fear ever present.
They all got onto the dragon. Jenny stopped and looked at me.
“What? Finally starting to see it?”
“Why the old you fell for me.”
“No.” She climbed onto the dragon’s back.
Sometimes when a woman says no, she means yes. It’s not right to act on that feeling, no matter how sure you are, but it’s quite nice to have it inside you. Even better when she has to admit it to you. Nice to have something to look forward to.