Jenny gave me a summarised version of how she had left Claire to look after Maurice and headed for Requbar.
“When I got to Requbar, I knew you were close but every time I went to where I thought you’d be, there was nothing there.”
I was probably already underground in a cell by that time. Or escaping through tunnels.
“How did you get to Requbar from Dargot so quickly?” I asked her.
“I stole a horse from a farm.” She said it like it was obvious. “The direction I needed to go was clear enough, so I just kept going until I saw the city. Then I met some soldiers and when I described what you looked like, they took me to the palace.”
“And you met the Queen?”
She screwed up her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I met her, but that part’s a bit foggy. She was like a doll, I think. Or she was wearing a mask. Yes, it was a painted mask. White, with dark holes that didn’t show her eyes.”
“You never saw her real face?”
Jenny shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
Everyone so far had said the Queen was very beautiful, but it could be they’d never actually seen her? Whatever magic she used to disguise Marv or control Jenny, she could also use it to change her own appearance. Except the spell Marv was under hadn’t worked on me or Flossie. She would have to hide her face another way.
“Are you sure she was a woman?” I asked Jenny. “Could she have been a man in a dress?”
Jenny frowned. “If she was in drag, she was pretty good.”
“Then what? How did you end up leading an army of eunuchs? And why eunuchs?”
Jenny closed her eyes again. “I don’t know. It seemed so straightforward. She wanted me to lead her army to Fengarad. I thought it was a great idea, for some reason. I was going to meet up with an army from Dargot, and then we’d attack the spires together.”
“The spires? You weren’t sent to save the city?”
Jenny shook her head. “We were to take the city from the monsters and then hold it against the spires. It doesn’t make sense to me now, but it made total sense before you finally released me.”
She made it sound like I should have just dragged her behind a bush the moment I saw her. It’s easy treating it as no big thing when you know it’s the right thing to do and that she would want me to do it, but there’s no way I could just assume that and go for it. I do have some morals. Not all of them, but some.
“Do you remember how you were supposed to take on the spires?” I asked her.
“Once we took control of the city, the Queens would arrive and open the spires.”
“Queens? From Requbar and… Dargot?” I seemed to recall Dargot also had a queen, although all my dealings had been with the Department of Road Planning and Maintenance.
“Yes,” said Jenny. “They know how to get inside the spires. I think. Once he used the spires against Monsterland, he can’t use them again for a while. That’s why he couldn’t stop the city being taken.”
“And all the monsters, you were equipped to deal with them? You and your eunuchs?” From what I’d seen, the eunuch army was not particularly fearsome. They’d fallen apart pretty quickly in front of a few ogres. The lizardmen were far more numerous and a lot smarter than ogres. And now they had all sorts of reinforcements from Monsterland, which made them even more formidable.
“The eunuchs aren’t what they seem,” said Jenny, rather cryptically.
“Yes? In what way?”
“Once they get activated, nothing stops them.”
Sounded ominous. “And how do they get activated?”
“I don’t know, exactly. One of the other women had a device. But I’ve seen them in action once they get triggered. They’re relentless.”
“Wait, so you’re the one in charge, but someone else has the special device?”
“I know. It sounds wrong but it made perfect sense at the time. I can’t explain why.”
Obviously the spell she was under had messed with her ability to see the blindingly obvious. She was being used, but why bother making her the leader? If they just wanted her to be cannon fodder, they could make her a grunt. Putting her in charge seemed to be an unnecessary risk, unless it had something to do with being a Visitor.
I got up and pulled my trousers up, like a gentleman. Can’t be walking around, flapping about in the wind.
“One minute,” said Jenny, pulling me back down. “And I don’t mean literally one minute.”
About a minute and a half later, we emerged from the cave. Hey, I was out of practice. Don’t judge. The Ogre Magi was sitting on her haunches outside the cave with rabbits hopping around her. I thought she was going to eat them, but she just watched them. Charming, in a monstrous way. It was only after the smell hit me that I realised she was taking a dump. We waited for her to finish. She stood up, grabbed a handful of rabbits—they didn’t seem to mind—and wiped her arse with them. The beauty of nature.
Once that was done, she tossed the rabbits away. They scampered off like it was all in a day’s work.
“Thank you,” I said. I wasn’t going to shake hands. “You were right.”
“Love,” said the Magi. Then she made a circle with her finger and thumb and poked it again. I wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say, but she obviously knew how to break the spell on Jenny. Could all of the Queen’s spells be broken with a shag, or did it only work if you were in love? Was that what she was trying to say?
“Dudley,” I said, miming a taller, fatter person around myself. “Flossie.” Smaller, bustier. “Love.” I made the circle and poked it.
“Hmmm,” she groaned. She got the message, I think.
We went back to the lake where things were more or less as we had left them. The ogres stood on one side, scratching themselves. The eunuchs had got to their feet and looked terrified. They didn’t do well on their own. That’s men without balls for you, I suppose. But then why had they been in the woods without a woman to lead them. Or had they.
“Is everything okay?” asked Claire nervously. She stared at Jenny, then ran to her and they embraced. They were quickly joined by Flossie.
“We don’t really have time for this,” was all I managed before there was a high pitched shriek and a dozen or so armoured women came running out of the woods. Someone, it seemed, had gone for reinforcements.
The lead woman was Guardian Telma and in her hands she had a spear, or something that looked like a spear with no tip. Instead, it had a spinning metal arrow, like a weather vane. She planted it in the ground where it stuck.
The eunuchs, who had been cowering a minute ago, suddenly stood up straight and formed lines. Their faces had lost all signs of fear, but also had taken a very strange wide-eyed quality. ‘Did you spill my pint’ times a million. Balls or no balls, you did not want to fuck with these guys.
The Ogre Magi roared again, but unlike last time, the eunuchs didn’t wilt under her wrath. They didn’t react at all.
Telma raised her sword to send them into battle, but there was a battle cry from the other side of the clearing. Lizardmen came running out of the trees waving sticks and spears. Would have been a welcome sight if they had been Mezzik, but these were regular lizardmen. At least, that’s what they looked like.
“Die, human, die,” yelled the lead lizard in a deep, resonating voice.
The women soldiers didn’t seem daunted. The eunuchs didn’t seem human. The Ogre Magi roared again, but it wasn’t so much at the eunuchs, as over them. There was a rustling sound, like an army of ants on the move. And then the rabbits came.
They were bunnicorns, hundreds of them, horns glistening with I don’t want to know what. They charged out of the forest and straight at the women soldiers.
They didn’t aim anywhere else. Caught by surprise from the rear—trust me, it was a very big surprise—they were impaled multiple times in a few seconds. They fell, dead, horrified expressions frozen on their faces.
I ran forward and grabbed the spear, pulling it out of the ground. The eunuchs went back to being limp and unthreatening. That was one problem sorted. There were others. I turned to the lizardmen.
“Really?” I said. “Do you think this is an appropriate time for pranks, Raviva?”
“How did you know it was me?” said Raviva, losing the lizard disguise. The other lizardmen also turned back into trolls, exchanging confused looks.
“Clearly, you’ve gotten lazy with the shape-changing, stuck in your cave putting on shows for each other. Not even close to convincing. You need to sharpen up your act and cut out the theatrics.”
The real reason I’d figured it was him was because I’d seen Keezy facepalming when the lizards arrived. He reacted the same way whenever Raviva went ham.
“What do we do with them?” asked Maurice, pointing at the bewildered eunuchs.
I looked at the spear in my hand. It wasn’t obvious how it worked but if I broke it, that might set the eunuchs free to live as they wished. Or…
“Take this.” I gave the spear to Maurice. “See if you can suss how it works.” I could always use my own army of obedient followers. Would make a nice change.
“You want to lead them to Fengarad?” asked Keezy.
“Not quite. We need to get these women undressed. Raviva, I hope you’re better at doing women with swords than you are at lizards with sticks.”
“Of course,” said Raviva, expansively spreading his arms. “We are all experts in the female form.”
Keezy rolled his eyes.
“You’re planning on going back to Requbar, aren’t you?” said Biadet. She had been hanging back and observing until now.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s as much in Uncle Peter’s interest as mine.” That wasn’t quite true, but it was the line I’d decided to go with.
“That wasn’t the arrangement,” said Biadet. I could tell she wasn’t going to be easy to convince.
“Look,” I said. Biadet’s eyes rolled up into her head and she slumped to the ground. Behind her stood Laney with her sword hilt held like a dagger, a red smudge on the end.
“Got you!” she exclaimed through a manic grin. “Oh, yes. Laney victorious. Hahaha.” She did a dance that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Packers’ end zone.
It solved the immediate problem, but she would still resist going to Requbar when she came round. Assuming she wasn’t dead.
I looked around. The ogres were petting bunnies. The bunnies were eyeing me in a way I didn’t like. The trolls were stripping the dead girls of their armour and the eunuchs were standing around waiting to be told what to do.
And in the middle of all this was me and my party. They were all huddled together around a naked Dudley. Usually, this would be the part where I moved us out of the maelstrom and away from all the crazy. But this was the first time I had a large army to back me up. The Queen of Requbar had a way of entering the spires and this was a rare chance to get the drop on Uncle Peter while his WMD was still recharging. It was a strange sensation, planning to head towards danger. It was even stranger doing it with an advantage.