We were ready to get back on the dragon, only I wasn’t entirely sure where to go next. I had a spike and a target for it, but both had been provided by people I didn’t trust. Everyone had their own agenda and the only thing they had in common was a desire to make me do their dirty work for them.
What I could use was some time to think things through, but there was no pause button so you could nip to the loo.
“Can you see any positive outcomes?” I asked Gabor.
“I see one bad outcome very clearly,” he said, looking over my shoulder.
Gullen Santan, Lord Administrator of Road Planning and Maintenance had sat down.
He and his men had escorted us very cordially to Queen Zarigold and back without saying very much. Now, Gullen was seated on a chair in front of a foldaway table that had appeared from nowhere.
His men stood behind him in perfect formation and his dogs sat on their haunches on either side of him, their eyes faintly glowing. But none of that was particularly surprising. The team of waiters bringing an assortment of food on platters that they placed on the table, lighting candles and serving drinks was what felt a bit odd. Strange time for a picnic.
“Please,” said Gullen, “take a seat.” He snapped his fingers, which I would have thought impossible in leather gloves but somehow he managed a crisp, loud crack. One of the waiting staff brought out a single chair and placed it opposite Gullen.
I looked at the others and they all slowly shuffled away from me. Not one to turn down a free meal, I sat down. I haven’t been on many dates in my life, but I was pretty sure this one wasn’t going to end with a coffee back at his place. At least, I hoped not.
“Before you go on your next fantastic adventure—possibly your last, ha ha, I jest—I thought perhaps we might have a little talk. Please, help yourself.” He indicated the food on the table with a sweeping hand.
It had been a while since I’d eaten and it all looked and smelled delicious. I picked up a large drumstick that must have to come from either a large chicken or a small ostrich. I twisted in my seat to look at my group salivating quietly in the candlelight.
I faced front and then tossed the drumstick over my head. Then I picked up more food and tossed them one after the other, spinning into the air. Bread rolls and cheese and fruit and various meats I couldn’t identify.
Behind me, I heard the food being caught, dropped, bounced around and juggled. Then the sound of eating and faces being stuffed.
Gullen smiled grimly. “It is not the way I lead, but I see the merits of your approach.”
“What approach?” I asked.
“I believe the leader must be kept strong and healthy before all others, if he is to lead well. You put the welfare of others before yourself, and win their loyalty that way. I use other methods to ensure the same loyalty.”
I just bet he did.
“You mean the food? I just thought you might have poisoned it so best to let them check first.”
The sounds of munching and chewing stopped all at once. I turned to find them all glaring at me.
“Anyone feeling any cramps or dizziness or anything? No?” I turned back to Gullen. “Seems okay.” I began eating.
Gullen picked up what looked like an apple, if apples were black as coal. “I wish you to consider me your friend. If you manage to return from this mission, you might be in need of an ally in what follows.”
He was being quite cryptic and I had no doubt it was deliberate.
“And what would you expect in return?” I asked him, proceeding to employ my favourite tactic of eating quickly before I heard something that made me lose my appetite.
“Nothing. I’m sure we can help each other, as friends do, but I require no pledges.”
“And the Queen?” I asked him.
“I will always be loyal to the Queen,” he said, “as long as she lives.”
I couldn’t tell how sincere an offer it was, but it was better than him threatening me. Then again, maybe he was threatening me and I couldn’t tell. Like I said, I hadn’t been on many dates.
“I don’t know if I’d consider you a friend, Gullen, but I’d rather have you as an ally than an enemy.”
“Good enough,” said Gullen and he stood up. His dogs did likewise. The food was cleared away in an instant and the table and chairs were whisked away. “I wish you luck, although I suspect something else is behind your phenomenal success.”
He stood there, waiting while we got on the dragon.
“Where we going?” asked Flossie.
“Just get us in the air,” I said.
Once we were high over the city, I felt a bit more secure. I took out the beautiful shiny spike the Queen had given me. She wanted me to stick it in the gem in the spires’ core, but what would that do? What would it do to the person sticking it in?
I took out the gem containing Evand and unfolded the handkerchief it was wrapped up in.
“You cannot trust her,” said Evand sounding tinny and distant, like he really was trapped inside the gem.
“I can’t trust anyone. What do you know about this?” I held up the spike and showed it to the gem from different angles. Could he see it from where he was?
“It is nothing,” he said sharply. “It won’t work, won’t do you any good. Throw it away.”
“Okay. Let’s find out.” I raised the spike. The Queen said it would drain the power from a gem. Evand was in a gem, too.
“No, no, no, wait, wait,” yelled Evand as I was about to stab his new home.
I stopped. “Why? I thought you said it wouldn’t do anything.”
“I said it wouldn’t do any good. It is a venting pipe. It will release the power contained in a gem.”
“Release it where?”
“I don’t know.”
I raised the spike again.
“I’m telling you the truth,” squealed Evand. “It could be into the air or a specific target. There’s no way of knowing.”
He seemed to be telling the truth. He certainly didn’t want me to test it on him and he knew I would if I felt he was lying. If it just released the energy, it might explode. Or it might transfer that energy to someone else. Maybe the elf. Maybe the Queen herself.
If she was a contemporary of Peter’s, she had aged a lot worse than him. He was quite dapper still, while she was on her deathbed. I could quite easily see her making a last ditch attempt at claiming a little time back at Peter’s expense.
The question was how best to use the spike to my advantage, if that was even possible. I wrapped up Evand again, which earned me a string of insults and threats.
“Hey, just remember I could put you in places much worse than my pocket.” That quieted him down.
“We should head for Fengarad,” said Laney. Her red hair streamed out behind her as she stood on the dragon’s back like she was on the bow of a ship with Leonardo. “We take the spires, we take the city. Your reward will be enough medals to cover your puny chest twice over.”
She acted like this would be a tempting offer for anyone. “The city is overrun with lizardmen,” I reminded her, “and we don’t know how to get into the spires.”
“I know,” said Evand’s muffled voice.
“And we don’t know a reliable way into the spires,” I clarified.
“My father will know,” said Laney. “He has known Uncle Peter from before I was born. He has been in the spires.”
The King of Fengarad had seemed a decent sort and worth talking to when it came to his city, but… “We’d have to get to him first. Same problem.”
Laney smiled. “I know a way into the city. A secret tunnel. That’s how I was smuggled out by these two.” She indicated Gabor and Roland who were lounging against the dragon’s blades, leaning against each other.
“It is true,” said Gabor. “We can get you to the King. There are many good outcomes with this path.”
He was reassuringly positive and we didn’t have many other options. And I liked secret tunnels. Nice and out of the way.
We landed in an empty field north of Fengarad. It was very dark but I didn’t want to attract attention with a light so we relied on starlight to find our way. Gabor and Roland walked around in circles, stamping the ground and then shaking their silhouetted heads.
“Here,” said Gabor eventually. He bent down and pulled at the turf, first just a bit, then heaving it up. Roland helped him and a large section of the ground lifted up like the bonnet of a car. It was about the size of a double bed and revealed a tunnel.
“You lot wait here,” I said to the others. I only needed Laney, as a way to get to her dad, and the dynamic duo to fight off any violent types. The fewer people, the less chance of us being detected, and the better chance of running away.
My party, of course, ignored me and followed us into the tunnel, even Nyx.
“I mean it. I’m giving an order.”
“You don’t mean it and we are stronger together,” said Jenny.
“I’m not sure you know what ‘stronger’ means.” I couldn’t be bothered to argue with them and Flossie had already sent Vikchutni off with his son still asleep on his back. Alright for some.
Once the flap closed behind us, I made some light. The tunnel was large enough to accommodate people on horseback, which was how Laney said they’d escaped. It was slower on foot but uneventful. After an hour of walking, we reached a ramp leading up to another trap door. This one opened up into the castle stables. We were inside Fengarad with very little fuss. Unfortunately, the stable was full of lizardmen.
We lifted up the door enough to peek out and could see them sleeping all over the place.
“Within my parameters,” said Gabor. “Wait here.”
He and Roland slipped out and gently closed the door after them. There were some muffled groans, the snap of what I assumed were bones, and lots of thumps. The door lifted again.
We got out, a bunch of lizardmen in very awkward poses were dropped in.
Dawn was creeping over the horizon but it was still gloomy and dark enough for us to slip around the side of the courtyard and into the castle proper. No one seemed to be about. It was eerily quiet.
“My father will be with his chancellor. They always spend this time together making plans.”
She led us to the top of the castle via various narrow staircases. We didn’t see a single other soul.
Two men stood on the battlements, watching the sun rise.
“Father!” cried out Laney. She ran to the King and threw her arms around him as he turned.
“Laney, my child.” He pulled her off him to get a better look. “Why are you here?” He turned his attention to Gabor. “You were meant to take her to safety.”
“We did, Your Majesty. And now we bring her back.”
“I hope you have a good reason for disobeying my orders. “
“I hope so, too,” said Gabor.
The other man stepped out from behind the King. “Ah, finally you guys are here,” said Uncle Peter, smiling broadly.
“Shouldn’t you be in the spire?” I asked meekly. I wasn’t really prepared for this confrontation right now.
“Why? It’s so cramped in there. Much nicer here.” He took a deep breath. “Look at that gorgeous view. You should all take a look.”
We hung back. “Won’t the lizardmen be a problem if they see us?”
“No way. They’re on our side.”
This was news. “They are?”
“Yes, yes, we all have the same goal, don’t we?”
“Survival, of course. Did Queen Zarigold send the venting pipe? Please tell me she did.”
He seemed very well informed. “She never mentioned it was meant for you.”
“Of course not. Too many spies and dirty rats, no offence,” he said to Nyx. “Can’t risk the enemy finding out what we’re up to.”
Which enemy? I was too confused to be scared of this new development.
“So you and the Queen are in this together?”
“Sure are, kid. Always have been. We’re the good guys.” He stuck out his hand to take the spike.