Maurice and Dudley weren’t happy. In fact, they were freaking out. They stomped around the now vacant green like they might find the girls hiding behind the wooden stakes rising out of the ground.
Whatever had happened, it had the feeling of being planned that way. For some reason, the girls had been taken from us, used as hostages to make us go after the man in Wizard’s Tower, and while we were off doing that, they had been taken somewhere else.
If they had wanted the girls, why not just take them? They clearly had the ability to do so. The whole thing felt like a staged performance but I had no idea what the point had been. Or why it required so much naked dancing.
I didn’t know who was behind it—the priestess, their God, some figure hiding in the shadows—but I suspected their actions were due to frustrations with failing to get into show business.
“What happened?” said Maurice. He kicked over a pile of wood.
“There’s no sign of them,” said Dudley, sadness and loss pervading his words.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I think the villagers were in on it. They know more than they’re saying, at the very least.”
Maurice nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. The mayor. He probably knows something.” He looked around, scanning the different houses. “We should find him and ask him a few questions. That one, I bet.” He pointed at a house at the far end of the village that was a little larger than the others, with a wall around it where the others had a small fence at most.
It had been too much bedlam to keep track of where everyone ran to be sure, but if you were the only mayor in the village, it stood to reason you’d have the fanciest house.
We headed over, peering in through windows as we went. There were no signs of life. The entire population were hiding under their beds, it seemed.
The mayor’s house had a big, solid-looking front door with a large knocker on it. The stone walls were only waist-height with no gate, and the garden within was lined with flowery borders. It had a very quaint feel to it, even at night.
I knocked on the door. There was no response. Maurice stepped forward and began slamming the knocker over and over. I assumed his plan was to irritate them into submission, which wasn’t a bad plan.
The only problem with that approach was that the mayor had armed guards at his disposal. We didn’t know how many he had in there with him but even a couple would be tricky to deal with. And there could well be more than that; I had counted a dozen when we first entered the village.
There was still no response.
“I think I can see them,” said Dudley. He had his face pressed up against a shuttered window, peering in through the slats, his hands cupped on either side of his head. “I think they’re behind the furniture.”
“How many?” I asked him.
“Mmm,” he muttered as he counted. “Six?”
Maurice tried the front door. It was open. He held it slightly ajar and took out his sword.
“We can’t fight six all at once,” I said. “And I doubt they’ll attack one at a time like they do in kung fu movies.”
“Flashbang,” said Maurice.
“Okay,” I said, “but how do we—”
Maurice was already on the move. He walked over to the window Dudley was peeking through and raised his sword. Dudley darted out of the way as Maurice smashed the wooden shutters to pieces. The time for taking notes was well and truly over.
“Hey! Stop that!” shouted the mayor.
“Where are the girls?” I shouted back. “We left them in your care, Nelbum.”
“This is your own fault. If you’d done as you were tasked, they’d still be here. You failed them.”
There’s nothing more annoying than people at fault trying to manoeuvre the blame onto someone else. Especially when you’re that someone else. Well, I’m sure there are more annoying things, but this was the one annoying me right now. I made a ball of light and threw it through the window.
We turned our backs as it exploded in a blinding flash. We turned back, ready to rush in and disarm all the men, perhaps kick a few of them in the balls as circumstance and opportunity dictated, and then demand answers.
The door burst open, knocking Maurice back, and a large, bald man came running out with a sword held aloft.
It wasn’t the mayor, it was one of his flunkies, and he’d obviously managed to avoid getting blinded. But he was the only one.
He bore down on Maurice who had stumbled to the ground. He was quick, but not quick enough to dodge the arrow Dudley fired into his ankle.
His feet slid out from under him and he fell face-first onto the sword Maurice was holding up in his shaking hands.
I don’t know the man’s name, what kind of person he had been or who he left behind. Wife, kids, dependent granny… he may have been the lynchpin who held the community together. He died immediately and without so much as a whimper.
Maurice heaved him off and rolled him onto his back, the sword sticking up. He didn’t stop to say a few words, didn’t express regret or guilt. He grabbed the sword and yanked it out as he ran into the house. Dudley and I raced in after him.
Inside, the other men were crawling around, unable to see anything. We grabbed weapons off them and threw them out of the window. I may have overdone the pyrotechnics. They had scorch marks around their eyes and possibly would never see again.
They didn’t put up a fight, just sat against the wall rubbing their eyes and moaning. I picked up the mayor and pushed him into a chair. I produced a ball of light and held it close to his face. After a few seconds he put up a hand to block the light, so his eyesight must have returned.
“Tell us what happened,” I said. “Where did the priestess take the girls?”
“Can’t you see this was the better way?” said the mayor. “If it hadn’t been them, they would have taken our children.”
“Who? The priestess?”
“Leave it be, I say. The women are gone. Pray they do not return.”
“Where are they?” screamed Maurice. He grabbed the mayor by his fur collar and choked him. The chair tilted back, threatening to fall over.
I’d never seen Maurice so worked up. The experiences he’d been through, the life he’d made with Claire, they had changed him. Made a man of him? Maybe. Made him not give a shit about people trying to take her away from him? Most definitely.
“I can’t tell you that,” said the mayor, only just managing to squeeze out his words. “If they find out we said anything, they’ll kill us all.”
Maurice stared into the mayor’s eyes, pure rage shaking him bodily. Then he released him and stormed out.
The mayor had a fearful but defiant look on his face. This was the man Joshaya had asked me to kick in the balls. I was starting to warm to the idea.
“You will tell us what we want to know.” I didn’t feel as confident as I sounded, and I probably didn’t sound all that confident, but how were we supposed to get them to talk? Torture them? It was an option, but not a very palatable one.
What we really needed was Claire to read their minds, but the stupid bint had got herself kidnapped. Never lucky.
“Where are they?” screamed Maurice from outside. “Speak. I’ll give you until three. One. What’s the matter? Can’t talk with a sword in your mouth? Two. This is your last chance. Three.”
There was a wet, sickening crunch.
The men in the room flinched. They looked around, scared and confused. They looked over at the mayor who shook his head at them.
Maurice came back in dragging a body behind him. His sword was sticking out of its head, reinserted into the wound he’d inadvertently made earlier.
The dead guy was quite big and Maurice, for all his time in the great outdoors, was still quite weedy, so it took some effort to drag the corpse into the room, pulling it along by one arm.
He let go and pulled the sword out of the forever-surprised face.
“Who’s next?” Maurice looked at the men against the wall, cowering together. By his expression you wouldn’t think he was bluffing. Maybe he wasn’t.
If it was an act, it was an act from an Oscar winning movie and if it worked for Sean Connery, it could work for us. But how far was he prepared to take it? Killing an already dead dude wasn’t really crossing the line. If he followed through on his threat, no matter how justified he might be, it could change him forever. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Gandhi said an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, but that isn’t strictly speaking true. An eye for an eye would leave everyone with one eye, which isn’t so bad. The only real loss would be 3D movies, and most people would see that as a plus.
One of the men rose, his eyes darting about wildly. The others looked ready to follow his lead. Rush us and take back control. They were panicked and desperate enough to risk it. Dudley fired three arrows, one in each boot and the last taking his hat off his head. He sat down with a bump.
“The priestess might come back,” I said, “but all she’ll find is a village full of dead people. We have no problem killing as many of you as we have to.” I set my hand on fire for dramatic effect.
The mayor’s mouth hung open, his defiance on the wane. “No, please, you don’t understand. They made us sacrifice our children. Set them on fire and watch them burn. If they took your women, at least they’re still alive.”
“Why did you want us to kill the man in Wizard’s Tower?” I asked him.
He moved his head side to side. “That’s what he told us to do. He said we had to convince you. It was the only way. He brought the women here and told us what to do. He said it was the only way.”
He was rambling now. Repeating himself and half-raving.
“He? Who is he?” I asked.
“Joshaya. The man in Wizard’s Tower. He brought the women here.”
“They were his prisoners?” said Maurice.
“No. They took the place of the children willingly.”
I was starting to get the feeling our lovely girlfriends hadn’t been entirely on the level with us.
There was a sound from outside. A horse whinnying, the sound of hooves and maybe a vehicle.
We left our prisoners and rushed to the window. There was a cart and horse outside. The driver was dressed in full armour and wore a helmet covering his face.
By the time we got outside, he had removed the helmet to reveal bushy white eyebrows hanging over familiar beady eyes. His silvery hair was in the exact shape of the helmet he’d removed. Whether this was due to the helmet moulding his hair, or him cutting it to perfectly fit inside, it was hard to say.
“Are you ready?” said Joshaya.
Now that I could see more of him than the small door slit allowed, I realised he was a far bigger man than I had assumed. Fat would be another word for it.
“Ready for what?” I asked him.
“To rescue your fair damsels, of course.”
The mayor came running out. “Garet’s dead. They killed him.”
“Yes?” said Joshaya. “Would you rather it had been three more children?”
The mayor didn’t answer. His men came out and gathered around him. They looked a sorry, forlorn bunch.
“Was this the idea all along?” I asked.
Joshaya nodded. “This was the way they wanted it.”
It’s very aggravating when people force you into doing things for your own good. Even if they’re right, even if it’s the right thing to do, no one likes being manipulated and coerced. They could have just asked, and I could have just said no. But they had decided to be sneaky about it.
Sean Connery once famously said it was okay to hit a woman. If the circumstances dictated it as the only way to make them stop, and some women just won’t stop even though they know it’s nearing the combustion point, then it was the right thing to do. I don’t agree with that. I’ve been in that position, and I’m no Sean Connery. But I was starting to see what he meant.
No one knows how to take you up to the wire like the person who knows you best. Intimacy makes you vulnerable and defending that vulnerability is difficult when you feel like you’re losing control of yourself to someone who knows all your weaknesses.
I was supposed to be untouchable. No connections forcing me to do stupid things. It didn’t feel that way. If I could see the tentacles around me now, I felt sure there would be more than a few attached to various parts of my body. Holding me down. Tying me up. Strangling me.
“Let’s go,” said Maurice. He climbed onto the back of the cart. Dudley followed, his bow slung over his shoulder.
I remained where I was.
“We can have it out with them later,” said Maurice. “Let’s. Go.”
I got in. “Where are we going?”
“Witch’s Castle,” said Joshaya.
“Because it belongs to someone called Wit Chez?” I said.
“No. It belongs to the One True God.” He leaned over and spat on the ground. Why do manly men think that’s cool?
“So he’s real, Old One True?”
“Of course he’s real,” said Joshaya. “And a complete bastard. How do you think he got to be the One True God? Killed all the other gods, didn’t he?”
Joshaya snapped the reins and the horse set off.