Laney crouched and started moving clockwise around Biadet, who stood still, tracking Laney with her eyes.
As Laney edged her way around, she crouched lower and lower until it seemed like she would soon be crawling like a crab. Biadet stood straight, the humongous axe resting on her shoulder, her face betraying zero emotion.
“Take a good look, Gabor,” said Laney in a playful voice. “Tell me what you think. What are my odds?”
The two men who had been fighting alongside Laney when we arrived, were watching with what looked like amusement. The taller one, who was called Roland, had donated his weapon to Biadet so he obviously had nothing against girls fighting to the death. Very egalitarian.
The shorter, stockier one was apparently called Gabor. He scratched his chin with a gloved hand and said, “It does not look good, I’m afraid, little lady. You might win this fight, maybe, one in a hundred.”
This assessment produced a very slight twitch in Biadet’s left eyebrow region. I’m not an expert on female facial cues, but I think the general gist was that she thought the odds were a slightly generous towards Laney.
“Keukeukeu,” snickered Laney, running the tip of her sword over the grass at her feet. “So, I do have a chance, albeit a small one.” She was now circling around to Biadet’s rear.
Biadet switched the axe to her other shoulder and kept turning her head, but making no move to engage Laney.
“My whole life, people have been telling me what I can’t do. Not now, Laney. You’re too young, Laney. Leave it to someone who knows what they’re doing, Laney.”
It sounded like very good advice to me.
“Are we going to fight, Princess?” said Biadet. “Or just dance?”
“Patience, Biadet. Remember how hasty you were back in school? Remember what happened because of your impatience?”
Biadet face seemed to fall into shadow, even though there were no clouds in the sky. She dropped the axe off her shoulder and held it with both hands.
“That girl,” said Gabor, shaking his head, “she would even give you a close fight, Roland. And then she would beat you.”
“Ha!” said Roland. “One of your wires must have come loose. Check your calculations, my friend, you must have missed a decimal point.”
“My calculations are perfect as always. She is something unnatural, I think.”
“You can calculate who’s going to win a fight?” I asked Gabor.
He turned to look at me like he had no idea I’d been standing there for the last five minutes. “I see it play out a thousand different ways up here.” He tapped the side of his head. “The outcome depends on many things. There is never a guaranteed result, but this one is as close to that as you can expect.”
“You’re Visitors?” He seemed to be talking about a special ability, which suggested to me that he was also from Earth, but he must have arrived well before us. He looked like he was in his forties. One of those wiry guys who ran every morning and rode their bikes in skintight lycra and pro-biker helmets through rush hour traffic.
“Visitors, yes. We came here from Hungary. Long ago. You?”
“Britain. Just recently.”
“And you are friends with monsters?”
“Yes. Some of them. They aren’t all that different to us.”
Gabor gave me an acquiescing tilt of the head. “Indeed. In some cases the only difference is better clothing. And sometimes no clothing is the better option, eh, Roland?”
Roland laughed so loudly I flinched away from him.
“What do your calculations tell you when you look at me?” I asked Gabor.
He looked me up and down. “You are still alive. Sometimes the odds can be beaten.”
I think his ability was telling him I should have been dead by now, which was a fairly reasonable assessment.
“Don’t worry,” said Gabor, as though he had read my mind, “we also are only here because we beat the odds. Knowing you are at a disadvantage is also an advantage.”
Laney had started closing in on Biadet, who was still standing in the same place looking mildly bored.
Without warning, Laney rushed forward, her sword leading. Her footsteps were a blur as she closed in.
The axe in Biadet’s hands twirled from the far side, across her body, and then into Laney’s path.
Laney lunged, then withdrew the blade, twisting her body so she was suddenly facing the sky and looking up and back to keep Biadet in sight. Her body continued spinning until she was upright again. Now that she had bypassed the axe slicing towards her, she lunged forward again.
Biadet flicked her wrist and brought the axe head swinging back towards herself. She caught the blade under her arm, clamping it to her side when it looked like it would shear her arm off. The handle now pointed out and Biadet used it to parry Laney’s relentless blows.
There were multiple metal rings all the way up the shaft of the axe and sparks flew off them as Biadet calmly deflected the onslaught from Laney’s sword.
A single clod of earth, grass still attached to one side, flew into the middle of the fray, striking Laney on the arm. Surprised, she sprang back and looked at Flossie who was slapping the dirt off her hands.
“If yo’ want to fight like children, go do it over there.” She pointed across the clearing we were standing in.
Biadet and Laney, one cool and restrained as a Goth at a luau, the other breathing hard and poised to strike like a cat, exchanged a look. There were many ways to describe their fight, but you didn’t often come across children engaged in mortal combat.
“One of those ogres knows where mah Dudley is, and I don’t have time for yo’ two to mess about.” Flossie screwed up her mouth into a small hole and her eyes were two dark dots. She was seriously pissed off.
Laney lowered her sword and stood up straight. “Do you mind? This is a serious grudge we’re trying to settle here.”
“Nobody’s stopping yo’. Just don’t do it here. You’re in mah way. Go on, shoo.” She tried to wave them away. They stood there, staring at her.
To be fair, they were fighting between her and the ogres. Keezy had moved them to the other side of the clearing and was talking to them (at least, that’s what it looked like) and Flossie had been growing more and more anxious to find out where they knew Dudley from. But clash of the mini-titans was cockblocking her.
Laney raised her sword and pointed it at Flossie. “Get out of the way, peasant.”
Flossie didn’t move. She didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by her impending skewering. “Vikchutni!”
The dragon reared its head. It was behind her with Nyx tending to the wounds along its body, but now it started lumbering over. One wing was open and being dragged along, arrows stuck in it, but Vikchutni wasn’t going to ignore the call.
Laney’s posture shifted as she realised the dragon was under Flossie’s control. She took a step back, but then raised her sword higher, ready to take on all comers.
There was a thunk! as Biadet buried the axe into the turf. “We can continue this later, Princess,” she said, her voice as calm and even as ever. “There are matters that need attending.”
Laney thought it over but rather than give her time to come to the wrong decision, I stepped forward.
“Okay, while you lot sort out your available dates for a rematch, we’re going to talk to those ogres.” I walked across the clearing towards Keezy.
The three ogres were huge and hulking. Their large, neanderthal faces showed no signs of intelligence and they clawed at the ground like they were spoiling to rejoin the fight. Strange gulping noises, intermingled with the odd grunt, seeped from their fang-filled mouths. Keezy was making soothing sounds to keep them calm, but they were straining to get past him and he kept having to push them back.
“Can you ask them if they know Dudley?” I asked him.
Keezy shook his head. “They do not have a language beyond simple noises to indicate anger and happiness. If they have encountered your friend, I doubt it was a friendly meeting.”
I turned to Claire who was now beside me. “Anything?”
She looked at the ogres. Her eyes narrowed, and then she flinched. “That one keeps thinking of Dudley.” She pointed at the smaller of the three.
“The female?” said Keezy. “Can you see where she saw him?”
Claire winced again. “I…” She looked at Flossie, concern in her face.
Whatever Claire was seeing, she obviously didn’t want it to upset Flossie, which suggested it wasn’t good.
“Is he… dead?” asked Flossie, her voice trembling.
“No,” said Claire. “It isn’t that. It’s just…” She hesitated again.
“Get on with it,” I said, impatiently. “We may still be able to get to him.”
Claire sucked on her lower lip. “He’s… I mean, in the ogre’s mind, when she thinks about him, he’s… naked.”
Flossie blinked very slowly. “What’s that mean?” she said coldly.
“Yes,” I said, “what does that mean? Naked on a spit over a fire?”
“No,” said Claire. “Naked and... doing stuff. With her.” She pointed at the ogre again. “Doesn’t mean he actually did anything,” Claire added quickly. “It’s just what she’s thinking about.”
Flossie stormed up to the female ogre. “Where’s mah Dudley, you giant tart?”
The ogre looked confused. There was quite a large discrepancy in their heights, but Flossie wasn’t intimidated at all.
“Fifty-fifty,” said Gabor.
Laney and Biadet had paused their duel for the time being, and Nyx was petting the dragon which was still suffering from its wounds. He had a handful of arrows he had removed from the dragon’s body. It seemed like an opportune moment to get some healing in. I moved over to the dragon and checked its injuries. There were nasty gashes in its side and one wing was torn in several places.
“You want to look after your dragon before he keels over?” I shouted at Flossie.
She looked over at me, her face still twisted with anger, and her expression softened. She said something to Keezy, then came running over. She cradled Vikchutni’s head in her arms as I healed him. I could feel the energy leave my body, but we would probably need the dragon in the near future.
It didn’t take long but I felt woozy when I finished. I opened my eyes to find everyone staring at me.
“Yo’ need a haircut,” said Flossie. “Thank yo’.”
Vikchutni mooed at me.
I brushed the hair out of my eyes and realised I couldn’t see Jenny anywhere. A sudden rush of fear ran through me.
“I’m here,” said Jenny from behind me.
Relief surged through me and I let out a sigh. Jenny did the same. Then she turned to Flossie.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, or your dragon.”
Flossie was clearly struggling to control herself. “Ah know you didn’t mean it,” she said in a whisper. “You’re not yourself.” She rubbed her arm where the arrow had struck her. The sleeve was ripped open, but the wound was gone. She gave Jenny a long, dark look and then kissed the dragon’s snout and walked back towards the ogres.
Jenny shivered. “I thought I only had access to your feelings.”
“No, mine are just the strongest, because you love me so very much.” I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back.
Flossie was back in front of the female ogre. “Where’s Dudley? Dudley. Dud. Lee.” Claire was beside her, staring up at the ogre who was watching Flossie with her large, misshapen head tilted at an angle.
This went on for a few minutes with Flossie occasionally looking at Claire, who would shake her head. And then, out of nowhere, the female ogre slowly opened her mouth. “Duuuuh… lee.”
Flossie turned to Keezy. “Did she say Dudley?”
“I don’t think so. They can’t...”
“Duuuudley,” said the ogre.
“Yes,” said Flossie, getting excited. “Dudley. Where’s Dudley?”
“Duuuudley, Duuuudley.” The ogre began slapping her giant mitts together and jumping from foot to foot.
Flossie started mimicking her. “Dudley, yes, where? Where Dudley?”
Watching them bounce up and down was kind of mesmerising, but it wasn’t getting us any closer to finding Dudley. The other two ogres were watching just as miffed as the rest of us.
“Duuuudley, Duuuudley.” The ogre started pointing into the trees.
“That way? Dudley that way? Ah think she knows where he is!”
The female ogre ploughed into the forest, leaving a trail it would be impossible to miss. The sound of crashing trees also helped to point the way.
“Let’s go,” said Flossie. She charged after her competition.