69. Trial By Fire

It might seem very romantic, a terrified girl falling into your arms and asking to be saved, but I assure you it isn’t. It’s actually quite upsetting. That she’s scared; that someone out there did this to her; that you’re expected to take care of it. All very upsetting.

A hero, of course, will do what needs to be done in order to save the girl. The heroes you hear about, that is. Then there are all those ‘heroes’ who attempt to save the girl, but fail. You don’t hear much about them, but I’m guessing they’re in the majority.

Dag had a bandage around his thigh where I assumed Jenny had stabbed him. He didn’t have his sword with him, but he was carrying the axe he’d been given on the first day. He immediately broke out his biggest smile when he recognised me.

“Hey. Look who it is. How you doing, bruv?”

From Jenny’s story, I had expected it to be Tin. I guess that was just my prejudices coming out. She was too worked up and babbling to be clear on who had attacked her, and I never asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said. “What do you want, Dag?”

“Looking for a friend. You seen her?  Dangerous out here on your own. We’re all a bit worried about her.”

“If you mean Jenny, she’s with us now. No need to worry, we’ll take care of her.”

His smile got bigger, somehow. “Aw, that’s great. That’s good news. Only, there’s a slight problem we need to take care of.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“See, all her gear, her weapons and that, we paid for it all. Me and Tin, we’re the rainmakers in our group. It’s no biggie, we enjoy it to be honest. Killing monsters and making a mint while you do it—it’s a lot of fun.”

Dag helped himself to a seat on the opposite side of the fire, wincing a little.

“We make sure everyone else is kitted out properly, make sure they have what they need to survive, but if you’re going to leave the group, it’s only fair you return all that stuff.”

I nodded in understanding fashion. “According to Jenny, you decided she owed you a lot more than just her gear.”

Dag’s face registered surprise. He looked either side of him, like I might be talking about someone else. “Oh, that girl. That little minx. Face of angel, heart of a pure bitch. Tell you I tried to force myself on her did she?” He shook his head. “Ha! Can you fucking Adam and Eve it? After all the times I saved her pert little butt, she uses that old chestnut against me. Classic, innit? Girl can’t have things her own way, accuses the guy of rape. No winning against that is there? What do I say? It wasn’t me? I never touched her?”

He looked really saddened by the whole thing.

“You won’t believe this, but it’s not the first time someone’s accused me of that sort of thing. First year of uni, met a girl at a party, went back to hers and fucked all night. Happy as Larry, I was. Couple of days later, police only pull me out of lectures, don’t they? Turns out she has a boyfriend back home, felt all guilty about what she’d done and decided her getting drunk and throwing herself at me was my fault, somehow. Luckily, I’d videoed it on my phone, so everyone could see she was more than willing. Cops loved that, I can tell you. Wanted copies for their records.” He laughed. “Strange how history repeats itself.”

“She did have a pretty nasty gash on her head,” I said. “And you do have an axe with what looks like blood and hair on the blunt end.” Do I have great eyesight? No. Just a guess. He could always deny it. Not like I could call in CSI: Narnia to check for a DNA match.

He raised the axe and looked at it. “Okay, sure. I ain’t gonna lie to you. I don’t come out of this smelling of roses, by any stretch. I could just walk out of here and call it quits, but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me. I wanted the gear back, she felt she’d earned it. I disagreed and started taking it by force—minimal force, mind—and she stabs me. Couple of inches to the left and women of this world would all be in mourning, let me tell you. I ain’t gonna deny it, I was pissed. I don’t believe in hitting women, you understand, but you stab a guy, bitch gonna get slapped. Instinct, bruv. Hit her before I even knew what I was doing.”

“The wound was on the back of her head,” I pointed out.

“She turned just as I swung. Probably good thing too, or I’d have caught her in that pretty face of hers. Look, it’s not hard to sort out. Bring her out here and let her accuse me to my face. If you still think she’s speaking the truth, I’ll walk away. But I think you’re a smart guy. You’ll be able to tell. I know you will.”

He was very convincing. Not frothing at the mouth or threatening, just a bit hacked off. I would be too, if I’d got stabbed for nothing.

Perhaps you were expecting a fight? The bad guy comes chasing after the innocent girl and I battle him to the death. Yeah, my death, most likely. Even injured, Dag was many times stronger and faster and tougher than me. And better with weapons. And more aggressive. And bigger. Do you see a pattern emerging?

It’d be great if the good guy was also the one better at fighting, like he always is in the movies. Up on the screen, good guys have a hundred percent win rate. Down here, it’s hard to even tell who the good guys are.

Everybody tell their version of a story in a way that makes them look good. Well, apart from me—I don’t give a shit what you think—but everyone else. Dag and Jenny probably both added a little here, forgot to mention something there.

What? You think because I had a thing for the pretty girl I’d automatically believe every word she said and condemn the guy out of hand?

Just because I fancy someone, doesn’t make them a good person. Just because someone is decent most of the time, doesn’t mean they can’t take a day off to be a dick. And vice versa.

I was willing to hear his side of the story. And if he sounded legit, I’d be willing to believe him. I’ve been in situations where the person I absolutely trusted turned out to be the liar. And somehow they always believe they were right to lie. They had to lie. You wouldn’t have believed me if I told you the truth.

“I don’t know what happened between you guys,” I said, “but if it’s the gear you want, that’s no problem. Wait here and I’ll go get it. Armour and weapons, right.” I stood up.

He stood at the same time. “You know what? This whole thing, I can’t be bothered with it. Tell her to keep it. She can consider it her farewell present. Just watch yourself, bruv. She may look like butter wouldn’t melt, but she’s a sly one.”

He stepped closer to the fire and put a foot on the mound of earth next to it. The little hill had been put there so we could quickly cover the firepit in case of emergencies.

“Word of friendly advice,” said Dag. “You shouldn’t let your fire get so big. Lets the monsters know where you are, and you don’t want that, know what I mean?”

He pushed the mound of earth with his boot and it fell into the pit, extinguishing the fire. I found myself in pitch dark, but I could hear the jangle of Dag’s chainmail rushing towards me.

My hand burst into flame. The light was brighter than before, revealing Dag’s face as he bore down on me with his axe raised over his head. He looked very surprised, proper rabbit in the headlights, and then even more surprised when two arrows hit him.

The first arrow struck him in the chest and bounced off. The second went right in his armpit—the sleeveless armour did show off his biceps nicely, though—knocking him back and making him drop the axe. He grunted and fell to his knees, clutching the arrow with his free hand and yanking it out.

“Oh shit. That fucking hurts.” He squeezed the words out between ragged breaths. He looked up at my hand. “That’s a neat trick. You’ll have to show us how you do it.”

I took a step closer and kicked his fallen axe away.

“Woah, easy. I give, I give. You win, bruv.” He had his hand pressed into his armpit trying to staunch the bloodflow. “Ooh. Ha. Thought I could handle you on my own, but looks like I underestimated you guys. Tin’s always saying I’m too hasty. Says we should always wait and see how things are before rushing in. I ain’t got the patience, though. Always fancy myself to be able to take care of business, know what I mean? Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer, eh?”

His eyes were fixed on something behind me, probably my sword still stuck in the ground. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t reach it in time, and I didn’t need it.

“I know,” I said, “I’ve played the game.”

He looked confused for a moment. “It’s from a game? I thought Tin came up with it. Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer. Yeah, I guess it does sound like it could be from a game. Still true, though.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “but not today.”

I drove my spike through the underside of his chin until the point popped out of the top of his shaved head. It didn’t kill him.

He grabbed my wrist and tried to pull my hand down. His hand was slick with blood which made it hard for him to get a good grip on me. His other arm hung uselessly at his side. He was much stronger than me, but he was also in a lot of pain. The struggle was sixty-forty in his favour, I’d say.

I could have used my other hand, but it was still burning and I didn’t want to set myself on fire. I could feel the spike being removed from his skull. If he got it free, he was more than capable of making me stab myself with it.

He didn’t get the chance. The end of Maurice’s spear punched through Dag’s chest and he opened his mouth to let out a surprisingly gentle, “Ah!”

Maurice and I pulled out our weapons simultaneously and Dag fell face-first into the dirt.

“He liked to talk a lot,” said Maurice.

“Yeah. Chatty.” I’d just killed a man. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t feel any different to how I felt a moment ago. I wasn’t upset the way I’d been when I killed the Mouse King. Did that mean I was turning into some kind of sociopath? Or that this death felt justified? Either way, I wouldn’t be shedding any tears on this occasion.

My hand was still burning. I knelt down and let the blue flame slide off my palm, into the fire pit. The wood caught light immediately and the flames lit up the camp. Dudley walked in with his bow over his shoulder. His aim had been amazing, and what had been even more impressive was the speed. The two arrows had hit almost at the same time.

“He wasn’t a very nice man,” said Dudley. It wasn’t much of a eulogy, but it was accurate.

“What now?” asked Maurice. “I suppose we should leave as soon as possible.”

Cool, huh? The three of us talking over a dead body like it was no big deal. Who the hell were we becoming?

“There’s something I want to do first. You should go tell the girls we’re okay,” I said to Maurice. Then I turned to Dudley. “I need you to help me get him back to his camp.”

Dudley just nodded, but Maurice looked surprised. “You’re going to take him back? Why?”

“Feels like the right thing to do. Plus, I don’t want them misunderstanding what happened. Don’t worry, I’ll have the sniperino watching out for me.”

“Do you think Tin knew about him?” said Maurice.

“Only one way to find out.” I bent down and grabbed one of Dag’s feet. “Come on, Dud, let’s go.”

Dudley grabbed the other foot but seemed hesitant. “It’s a tad dark, isn’t it? We could wait till morning.”

“Sniperino works better in the darkerino.” My hand burst into flame, lighting our way.

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