Ever have the feeling things aren’t the way you thought they were? That’s the trouble with winning, it imbues you with confidence and everything looks good. Makes you think nearly there is the same as really there.
Very dangerous thing, confidence. Like any tool, it has its uses, helps you get things done. But if you’re not careful, you can slice your thumb off.
When you lack confidence, sure, you accomplish fuck all and stay indoors as much as possible, but your outlook is much more dependable. Not often you think you’ve got no chance with a girl and there’s a knock on your door Friday night. You can count on self-doubt to never let you down.
When you believe in yourself and think you can make things happen by trying hard, sometimes that’s what you need to push you over the top. And sometimes, it makes you take dumb chances.
Joshaya disappeared in a haze and we were left in our little glade with the frogmen and one giant frog.
“What did he mean by that?” said Maurice. “What was the prize?”
I would have liked to think he was just being an arsehole. He’d lost and was throwing out a vague threat to make us less smug in victory. Which would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, if you were an arse. Solid arsehole tactics.
But I didn’t think that was why he’d said it. It felt much more likely I’d screwed up and played into his hands. And you know how reliable self-doubt is.
“Um, hey, forest? Gerand? Hey, dwarf?” My voice grew louder and more desperate, but there was no response from the trees.
The third dwarf’s name was Gerand and I’d spent many hours telling it exactly what I needed it to do. It hadn’t been very accommodating, at first. There was resentment about being separated from its buddies. I had explained it was only temporary (a thousand years at the most) but there had been some sulking and staunch refusal to offer any assistance. It took quite a lot of persuading, some threatening and a whole host of promises I had no intention of keeping before the dwarf agreed to my plan.
It was all made doubly difficult because we had to negotiate with the victim of my plan all around us. It’s not easy getting away from nature.
But I’d done it. Using every ounce of determination I could muster, I convinced the dwarf to take over the forest. Worked like a charm. Then I sent the forest to free the girls. No problems.
Once I arrived back with the frogs, I had planned to talk to them about what I intended to do and then march on the castle and keep Joshaya busy while the girls escaped, and then we’d all leave, weakening his godlike powers in the process.
This is what happens when you gain confidence. I’ll do this, then that, and once I get it all done, the rest should fall in place, easy peasy.
You assume things will go the way you want them to, even though there’s no guarantee they will. If things go wrong, then there’s not much you can do about it, so might as well assume they’ll go right.
Which is great when they do work out. In fact, they may have only worked out because you assumed they would. Confidence can definitely work in your favour at times. But when they don’t go as planned, well, confidence is a fickle bitch.
Some people can’t handle the comedown. They’ll make excuses, go into denial, pretend things went just as planned. But there’s no changing the facts. Once you know what they are.
“He sounded like this is what he wanted,” said Maurice, still confused. He wasn’t the only one.
“Why did he leave like that?” I asked the Elder. He shrugged his froggy shoulders.
“Here,” said Nabbo, offering me his pipe.
“Not now, Nabbo!” I snapped at him. Completely uncalled for, but you judge a person when they’re under pressure and struggling. And this was me.
“What about the girls?” asked Dudley nervously.
I tried to control the sense of doom in me. “Okay. Let’s go.” The other thing about confidence is that once you lose it, you can’t fake it. You literally don’t sound the same. Your body stands differently. Your resting face is a whole other shape. People who used to look at you with wide-eyed admiration now look away.
It was an hour’s walk back to the castle, which was a church. Or at least that had been my guess. I was no longer sure about anything. We had plenty of time to talk, but I wasn’t in the mood. Maurice was on one side of me, lost in his own thoughts. Dudley was on the other, still covered head to toe in blue mud. And behind, a trail of frogmen followed to see what was going on and if it meant they’d have to leave the forest or not.
The only thing I could think was that it was something to do with the dwarfstone. I had released the dwarf and now he wasn’t responding to me. Was he still in the forest? There was a lot I didn’t know about how the gems worked, and no one had bothered to give me a quick beginner’s guide. The one time I wanted a tutorial you couldn’t skip through....
Thing was, if he’d just asked me for the dwarfstone in exchange for the girls, I probably would have agreed. It wasn’t that important to me. Nothing was, which was kind of my problem.
My mind was all over the place as we neared the castle ruins. Waiting for us, sitting on a collapsed wall, were our three damsels, purveyors of distress.
“They’re here!” called out Flossie. They began jumping up and down and waving. They seemed very upbeat.
My heart sank. Whatever had gone wrong, they had no idea. It didn’t bode well.
They came running over. Jenny and Claire both slowed as they realised something was off. Flossie, on the other hand, continued bouncing towards us like she’d been named Queen of the Forest (not King, not Duke, not Prince).
“Ah knew you’d make it. Ah knew.” She threw her arms around Dudley. His mud coating had dried but it still clung to Flossie’s clothing and skin. She didn’t care, though.
“What’s wrong?” said Jenny, coming to a full stop before she reached me.
“You won, didn’t you?” said Claire, her normal scowl twisted by a confused look.
“Won what?” I said, peeved. “What the fuck were you guys thinking?”
“It’s alright,” said Jenny calmly, which is a stupid thing to say when clearly it isn’t alright. “You won.”
“Won WHAT? Why did you drop us in the shit like that?”
“Calm down.” Again, not helpful. “Look around. We’re all alive and safe.”
“Yeah, for now.”
“What else is there? Whatever’s upsetting you, it isn’t as important as us being here, together, alive. Is it?”
She had a point. It was still annoying, but not because I was feeling like I’d fucked up. This was the regular kind of annoyed when she was right and I was wrong. Annoyed classic.
I took a breath and tried to clear my mind. Whatever Joshaya had been up to, it didn’t involve killing us. That was all that mattered. If he had wanted something else—the dwarf or whatever—that was fine.
“Better?” asked Jenny. She didn’t wait for me to answer, she moved in and put her arms around me. “I missed you.” And then added, “More than you missed me.”
Everything’s a competition with some people.
“Ah thought you’d be happy to see us,” said Flossie, pouting, finally realising things weren’t as hunky-dory in the real world as they were in her head.
“We are. I am.” Dudley smiled weakly.
“Okay. Can you tell us what happened now?” I said.
“He woke me up,” said Claire. She had gone to Maurice and was holding his hand. It was like she’d forgotten she was British with her overt show of public affection. “With his thoughts. It wasn’t like when I try to look inside someone’s head, this was like a loudspeaker turned up. I could hear everything.”
“Joshaya?” I asked, just so we were on the same page.
“Yes. Him. I could hear him and all he was thinking was about killing you.”
“Me?” I asked meekly, hoping we weren’t on the same page.
“Yes, you. So I woke Jenny.”
“Wait, wait,” I said. “Why did you wake her? Why didn’t you wake me?”
“She was closer. And she would have a better idea what to do.”
It was hard not to derail her debriefing with a bunch of de-shouting. “How the fuck—No, carry on. Let’s hear the rest of it. I can hardly wait.”
“He was standing by the fire,” said Jenny, “just watching us. Mainly you, though. He really had his eye on you.”
“Okay. He was all about the Colin. Then what?”
“I asked him what he wanted,” said Jenny. “Even if he didn’t tell us, I thought it would give Claire a chance to hear his thoughts.”
“And the rest of us slept right through this midnight meeting?”
“You’re a very sound sleeper,” said Jenny.
That was not true. I had always been a very light sleeper. Jumpy would be a better way to describe it. But I was basing that on how I used to be. Back when I was freaked out by everything. That’s another problem with confidence, makes you too relaxed.
“And them?” I pointed at Maurice and Dudley.
“I have ear plugs,” said Maurice. “Can’t sleep without them.”
Typical. In a world where monsters can creep up on you at night, he invents ear plugs.
“Mah Dudley sleeps like a babby,” said Flossie, like this was some kind of accomplishment.
There was no point investigating further. “What did he want?” I asked.
“To kill you,” said Jenny, “like Claire said.”
“On the inside, too,” said Claire.
“Okay, well I think we’ve established motive. Then what?”
“I threatened him,” said Jenny. “Told him you were a very powerful magician and you’d kill him first.”
“So you threatened him on my behalf. Still hadn’t considered waking me, then?”
“No,” said Jenny.
Was I missing something? Wasn’t I the go-to guy when things got a bit sticky? What was with the Colin-circumventing?
“And how did he react to your threat?”
“He laughed,” said Jenny.
“On the inside, too,” added Claire.
“And I still didn’t wake up?”
Jenny sighed. “You weren’t actually asleep.”
Now I was really confused. “I wasn’t asleep? Then what was I doing?”
“You won’t like it,” said Jenny.
“I don’t care. Tell me.”
“You were floating in the air, about this high.” Jenny raised her hand over her head. “Naked.”
“That’s not so bad,” I said.
“Speak for yourself,” said Claire, unnecessarily.
“You were hovering over a wooden stake in the ground,” said Jenny. “It was pointy. He was going to impale you. Up the arse.” She pointed a finger into the air and poked it up and down for emphasis.
“Okay, okay, I get it. So I was under some spell and he wanted to turn me into a shit kebab. Why? Why me and not one of you?” I felt this was a reasonable question that could have no reasonable answer.
“He was upset,” said Claire. “Because you released the elf. He was very upset about that.”
“But that wasn’t even me,” I whined.
“We told him that,” said Jenny. “He said it was still your fault. And you had to die. Painfully. In the arse. He was very specific.”
This is why I’ve always been an atheist.
“How did you convince him not to, you know…” I pointed my finger up and down, which seemed to have been adopted as the universal sign for death by arsehole.
“She went Colin on him,” said Claire.
“I told him he was obviously scared of you,” said Jenny, “that’s why he’d crept in at night and not given you a chance. He made a bunch of excuses, but I just did what you would do and called him out on all of them until he agreed to see you in action.”
“Which would obviously convince him to kill you,” said Claire, “unless you were actually busy trying to save us.”
“That’s why you put yourselves in danger? To show my good side? Have you seen the things I do and say when I’m trying to save you fuckers?"
“Have you seen the things you do and say when you’re not?” said Claire. Touché.
“But why,” I said, “did you promise to marry him?”
“We didn’t,” said Jenny.
“Are yo’ mad?” said Flossie.
Claire was as bewildered by this news as the rest of them. “Why would he want to marry one of us?”
Which was when I stopped being so annoyed with them. I was still unsure what exactly had happened or what Joshaya had done, but I remembered who I was with. My people. They were faced with an overpowered character they didn’t know, who was about to do very bad things to me, but they didn’t scream and go nuts, they fumbled their way through and never once felt good about themselves while doing it.
Even if they’d got me killed, it would have been okay. But I was still alive, and that was enough. I had the feeling Joshaya would turn up again, but fuck him.
“Why are you smiling?” said Claire, suspiciously.
“No reason. It’s just nice to see you, Claire.” And I sort of meant it.
“Um,” said Jenny. She pointed at my hands.
I looked down. They were glowing. That was new.