Once the female ogre ran off, the remaining two ogres shoved Keezy aside and rushed after her. Flossie was now in hot pursuit of one ogre while being followed by two, even bigger ones.
Keezy gave me a questioning look, and then set off after the ogres. I let out a sigh and braced myself for whatever unpleasantness we were about to encounter. When the best case scenario was finding Dudley in the nude, it didn’t bode well.
There was no guarantee Flossie was going to find Dudley somewhere deep in the forest, but I could see why she jumped at the chance. Personally, I wasn’t so keen to blindly go where ogres lead. If the female ogre was large and gruesome, the two males were larger and gruesomer. And who knew how many more of them there were in the forest?
“We have to go after her,” said Claire, rushing across the clearing towards the ogre-shaped gap between the trees that had recently appeared.
“Yes,” I said, getting a scowl in return before her and Maurice disappeared into the undergrowth. I probably sounded reluctant, but I was more tired and hungry. It had been a while since I last ate anything. “It was nice meeting you,” I said to Gabor. “If we bump into each other again, there’s some questions I’d like to ask you. About Uncle Peter. Nyx, keep an eye on the dragon.”
Nyx nodded. He, at least, had taken to his lowly role as stable boy without complaint. His introduction to the surface world had been quite intense and he was more than happy to take a back seat, for now at least. He was still a prince and no doubt would want to play a bigger role eventually, but that was okay. I was sure there’d be an opportunity for him to get himself killed spectacularly at some point.
Gabor folded his arms and flexed his prodigious biceps. “I advise you to avoid the spires of Fengarad as much as possible. Not favourable odds.”
Roland strode across the clearing and yanked his axe out of the ground. “I like this one,” he said, pointing at me. “Trouble follows him like a bad smell. An interesting life he must lead. Maybe we tag along for now?”
Gabor shrugged and looked up like there might be something hidden under one of his eyebrows. “We do have some spare time.”
“What do you mean, spare time?” roared Laney. “We have an agreement. You work for me.”
“Yes, little lady, we have an agreement,” said Gabor. “And the best chance you have of freeing your father is to let us choose the route to Fengarad. This way.” He pointed towards the forest interior.
“I see,” said Laney, offering me twisted grin. “I help you find your friend, then you help me liberate Fengarad.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t need your assistance on this one.”
“It was not a negotiable offer,” said Laney. She looked at Jenny standing next to me. “Jenny. Your eye… you’re the One-eyed Devil?” Something clicked in Laney’s tiny brain. “The Queen sent you to Fengarad. I was trying to catch up with your army when we were waylaid. This is fortunate, indeed. Together, we—”
“She doesn’t work for the Queen, anymore,” I said. “She belongs to me.”
I tried to grab Jenny’s hand, got rebuffed, and settled for her wrist. She resisted at first but then stumbled along with me as I followed the trail of devastation left behind by Flossie’s rescue mission.
“In what sense does she belong to you?” asked Laney, falling in behind us.
“In every sense,” I said.
Jenny tried to yank her wrist out of my grasp. “In no sense do I belong to you.”
“Ah,” said Laney. “So, you won’t mind if I take him off your hands?”
Jenny stopped abruptly, nearly pulling my shoulder out of its socket. “Stay away from him.” Her voice was almost a growl.
I looked at her and her eyes went from menacing to confused. She snatched back her hand and rushed ahead of me. I guess if anyone was going to reignite her emotions towards me, it would be Laney. She never did like princesses.
“So,” said Laney, “it’s like that?”
“That’s my line,” said Biadet, suddenly appearing at Laney’s shoulder
“Never,” said Laney, drawing her sword, “sneak up on me like that!” She turned and slashed at the air where Biadet had been a moment ago. Biadet had somehow jumped back to where Roland and Gabor were bringing up the rear. She ducked behind and between them as Laney tried to get a clean stab at her, with Roland laughing uproariously at the antics of the two enemies.
It was cool and quiet under the forest canopy. Broken tree trunks showed the way, with the sounds of more vegetation abuse up ahead. Jenny was only a few steps in front of me but I remained behind her. She was struggling with conflicting emotions and I thought it best to give her some space. What I wanted to do was grab her and shake her and take off her clothes and shake her some more—you never know, slipping her the D might be just the reminder she needed (Ooh, I remember this!)—but that could go horribly wrong. Better to be patient than a sex offender, as no children’s television presenter ever said.
A loud cry of “Wa hooo!” broke through my ruminating. I sped up and then broke into a run as more wa hooos filled the forest. Jenny was already running in front of me, and I could hear rapid footsteps closing from behind. There was light up ahead and we all broke into a clearing together.
Maurice and Claire were standing either side of Flossie. All three had their backs to us and were watching at least a dozen ogres frolicking in a lake—splashing water and swimming around. And in the middle of the lake, on a small island of grass, stood Dudley. Naked.
His face was bright red, one hand covered his privates, the other was up by his face, waving.
“What’s going on?” I asked Keezy, who I spotted hanging back at the edge of the clearing.
“I never thought I would actually see this.” He sounded awestruck.
A bunch of ogres swimming around a naked boy in the middle of a forest—prettys sure no one ever thought they’d see this.
“This is the Dance of the Ogre Magi,” said Keezy in hushed tones. “Beautiful.”
For those who have never seen an ogre up close, take it from me, there was nothing beautiful about what I was witnessing. Big, hairy ogres with faces like bulldogs sucking on stinging nettles do not inspire the setting up of a canvas on your easel.
They didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the audience they had attracted, they were far too busy having a good time, which was fair enough. The question was how to get Dudley off the island.
An ogre climbed out of the water and onto the island. Dudley didn’t seem scared, he just smiled politely. Judging by the size, it looked like the female ogre who had led us here. She towered over Dudley, nearly twice his size, and threw her arms around him, pulling him into the air and into her extremely hairy bosom. His arms and legs flailed around for a bit and then stilled.
Flossie, unable to control herself any longer, rushed to the water’s edge. “Dudley!” she called out. “Dudley!”
The ogres stopped swimming and looked at her. The female ogre carried Dudley to the edge of Kong Island and roared back, “Duuuudlaaay!”
You people with your sparkling vampires and billionaires in handcuffs, you have no idea what romance is.
The ogres in the water started swimming towards Flossie.
“Wa hooo, wa hooo,” spluttered Dudley through chest hair. The ogres backed off, forming a circle around the little island.
“He can communicate with them,” I said, stunned.
“That isn’t possible,” said Keezy.
“Coom ear, Dudley,” implored Flossie, waving him towards her, like he just needed to know which direction to go in.
“Ah, hello there, darling. I would love to join you, but I’m rather indisposed, currently.”
“But what are yo’ doing here? How are yo’ not dead?”
“Um. It’s a bit of a long story, I’m afraid. They seem to have rather taken to me. This one in particular.” The ogre female farted loudly and then squeezed Dudley tighter, rubbing her cheek on the top of his head. “I’m not sure of the local customs, but it appears we’re engaged.”
“Do ogres get married?” I asked Keezy.
“No. At least I’ve never heard such a thing. They are too primitive to enter into contractual relationships.”
“What do yo’ mean engaged?” said Flossie, her delight at finding her lover somewhat tempered by discovering him with a ten-foot fiancé.
“Calm down, dear,” said Dudley, nervously. “They’re easily upset.” He lowered his voice further. “Especially my prospective mother-in-law. She confiscated my clothes.”
I wasn’t sure which one was the mother-in-law, but I was sure she’d make every mother-in-law joke ever made completely justified.
“Give me back mah Dudley,” screamed Flossie. “Dudley. Mine. “ She banged herself on her chest. “Mine.”
The female ogre pulled Dudley even deeper into her chest and grunted defiantly at Flossie across the water. Then she started pounding the ground with one fist and called out. “Wa hoo,” over and over.
“What’s going on?” asked Claire, looking at me.
“I dunno. Read the ogre’s mind.”
“I don’t want to,” said Claire, grimacing. “Last time I looked, it was… x-rated.”
Even with all the new people we had, fighting this many ogres would be a nightmare. Even Biadet looked unsure of herself in this setting. They were dumb and easily distracted, so running away wouldn’t be too difficult—definitely my preferred option—but they had Dudley surrounded and didn’t look like they were going to let him go.
I turned to Keezy. “How do we get Dudley back?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t understand what they want with him.”
There was a much louder call of “Wa hoo!” from deeper in the forest. The ground shook. Trees fell over. On the other side of the lake, another ogre appeared. A big one.
“Ogre Magi,” said Keezy, aghast. “She has come.”
She was bigger than any of the males, and uglier. My guess was that this was the mother-in-law. She walked into the water and waded across to where Flossie was standing. Everyone on our side moved back towards the trees, except for Flossie.
Flossie stayed where she was and even though I couldn’t see her face, I knew what her expression would be. But she had no chance against that thing, not even if her dragon had been here.
“Waaat… yoooo… want.” The Ogre Magi spoke real words.
Flossie pointed at Dudley. “Dudley.” She slapped herself on the chest. “Mine.”
The ogre turned her massive head to look at Dudley wrapped in her daughter’s arms and then looked back at Flossie. “Challenge…” rumbled the giant ogress, “...accepted.”
If that meant Flossie would have to fight an ogre, there was no way she was going to win. And I doubted they’d agree to a singing contest. But Flossie didn’t seem daunted by the prospect. She just nodded. And then she turned and looked at me. What the fuck did she expect me to do? I was planning on being Dudley’s best man so the ogres would let me live.