209. Down the Local

“If you intend to go to Dargot,” said Keezy, “you will not be there to meet with Raviva.”

Raviva had gone off to gather the other trolls and we were supposed to meet them outside of Fengarad. The trolls had an extensive network of caves and tunnels so it wouldn’t be hard for them to get there without running into any trouble, although since they were giant rock creatures, it would probably be more trouble for whoever they ran into. Assuming they didn’t know the trolls’ weakness.

“What will he do when we don’t turn up?”

Keezy shrugged; in his female form he made it look quite good. “Probably wait until he gets bored. A day or two at best.”

“That should be long enough for us to find our friends and get back.” I had no real idea how easy it would be to find Claire, assuming she really was in Dargot, but at least with a dragon our travelling time would be quick. It was definitely the only way to fly. Literally.

Nyx sat down opposite me and started licking his hands and using them to wash his snout. It was a good thing Flossie wasn’t looking this way.

“What happened to you down there?” I asked him. “I thought you wanted to be an adventurer. First sign of trouble and you vanish.” I might have sounded like I was disappointed in him, but to be honest he did the right thing.

“No, I was with the dragon. He woke up and wandered off so I thought it best to follow him. You were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t want to disturb you. When I realised what he was doing, I felt a bit ill and had to sit down for a minute. The smell was so terrible it made my eyes sting.” 

I had the uncomfortable feeling he’d been watching me while I slept. 

He bent down and examined Jenny who was still under me. “I think she’s having trouble breathing.”

“She’ll be fine,” I said.

“Even if we were together,” said Jenny through tight breaths, “I’m still going to kill you.”

Despite her threats and her general poor attitude, she was still the same girl I fell for. She felt the same, she smelled the same. It was hard not to ignore her temporary dislike for everything about me and give her a kiss. It had been a while since I’d seen her and my natural inclination was to throw my arms around her, not slam her on the ground and jump on her. Well, not like this. But I wasn’t going to do anything to her without her consent, not even a peck on the lips. It wouldn’t be right. Especially since she’d probably use the opportunity to rip my tongue out with her teeth.

“Where were you headed with your army?” I asked her. “You were going to meet up with forces sent from Dargot, weren’t you?”

Jenny didn’t say anything. 

“Perhaps I should torture it out of you.”

“I won’t talk.”

“Really? Even if I do this?” I stuck my finger in the back of her knee and pressed. For some reason that was an extremely sensitive spot for her. 

“What are you… uh… stop… uh, uh, uh.”

It wasn’t sexual, it was just a thing she had that made her wig out. And it was fun. Not for her obviously, but I was having a good time. Until I saw how Nyx and Keezy were looking at me. Okay, so there are different kinds of abuse, but no good kind. I stopped and acted like I hadn’t done anything wrong, quickly changing the subject.

“What about you?” I said to Keezy. “You spent a lot of time in Dargot. Do you know a back way in?”

When I first met Keezy, it was in a Dargot cell. He and his fellow trolls had been caught masquerading as soldiers in the Dargot army. I may have been partly responsible for their capture. 

“I can get you inside the city walls, but the Administrator is going to have his men on high alert.”

Gullen Santan, Administrator in charge of Road Maintenance and Planning, was not a man I particularly wanted to see. He always seemed to have jobs lined up for me, none of which had a pension plan.

“We only need to get in and out. They’re probably too busy with the war and liberating Fengarad to be too concerned about us.” Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t going to be like that. Gullen Santan was the type of guy who liked to keep an eye on all corners of his world. And he very much considered it his world.

“Do you even know where to start looking for your companions?” It was an excellent question.

“Can you remember anything about where you last saw Claire?” I asked Jenny.

“Mpff,” she replied.

I got off her to let her speak and she slowly got up on all fours, and then made a break for it. I tripped her up and sat back down on her. 

I pulled down the flaps on my hat and got comfortable. I sat on Jenny for the remainder of the journey which, again, may not seem the most enlightened way to treat a woman, but in my defense I will say that the preoccupation women have with being skinny is an issue that isn’t of any real interest to most men, certainly not me. I can tell you from experience, if you’re going to spend hours sitting on a woman, using her as an impromptu chair, a few curves and a little padding are very welcome.

We didn’t reach Dargot until the afternoon. It was a bright, cloudless sky and we would have stuck out, well, like a dragon in an empty sky, so we came in low and parked the dragon in a wooded area. He was only too happy to start destroying the local foliage while we figured out our next move. 

Dargot wasn’t very far, I could see its walls from the treeline, but there was a large open area between it and us, and a guarded gate to get through. Even from where we were, I could see the activity going on as soldiers marched in and out. Mostly out. There was no way we were going to get past the checkpoint without being spotted. 

“There is a secret tunnel that will get us inside the city walls,” said Keezy, “but we have to be very quiet.” He looked over at Jenny, whose hands and feet were tied with some vines I’d found. They had small white and yellow flowers growing on them, so it was quite a chic form of bondage. Very recherché.

There was a good chance Jenny would give us away if she got the chance, but she was the only one who knew where Claire was—at least, the knowledge was somewhere in her mind. If I brought her along, that memory might break loose and help us find the others. If I left her tied up here, there was no telling what might happen to her. Or what havoc would be wrought if she got loose.

“Jenny, this is important. It’s important to you, even if you don’t know it. We’re trying to find the people we… you care about most. Can I trust you to not do anything to give us away until we find them?”

“Yes,” said Jenny. The lying bitch.

“I want you to swear on Mr Puffy.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. Mr Puffy was the cat she had when she was a kid. She was always going on about him and what an important part of her life he was growing up. Or at least, I think he was. I tended to tune out as soon as she brought him up.

“How did you—”

“Because you told me, obviously. It doesn’t matter, just swear it. I’ll believe you. I might have been brainwashed out of your memory but I know the things you really love will still be in there. Swear it.”

She did. I checked she didn’t have any fingers crossed, because there are always loopholes, even to love.

“Good. Then I’ll also swear by Jackson Tiddles, my goldfish and only true friend, that as soon as we find the others, if you want to leave and go back to the trenches, I won’t stop you. You’ll be free to go.”

I was lying, of course. There was no Jackson Tiddles and even if there had been, what kind of idiot swears on the life of a pet? They only live for a few years, mostly shitting and expecting you to clean it up. If Jenny still wanted to leave after we found the others, I fully intended on dragging her around with me until she saw sense.

Once we’d struck our deal, and I’d had a quiet word with Flossie and Keezy to keep an eye on Jenny in case she went back on her word (she was no less duplicitous than me), we left Nyx watching the dragon and made our way deeper into the woods.

Nyx had wanted to come along for more of the adventuring life, but walking around with a giant rat might have given the game away. I convinced him he was the man to keep an eye on Vikchutni since they’d already formed an intimate bond. Plus, he was already used to the smell.

Keezy led us to a slight rise surrounded by bushes and shrubs. He pulled a few out by the roots but all there was behind them was a grassy hillock. He began digging with his hands, which is an odd thing to see an attractive woman do; even more so when she sends mud flying around like an industrial digger. After a couple of minutes the hole broke through into a larger hole. I lit a ball of light and peered down. A tunnel.

Once we squeezed through the opening he’d made, we found ourselves able to stand, even Keezy. The walls were smooth and the roof didn’t look like it was going to fall on our heads. It probably was, but at least it didn’t look like it. It was a long, straight tunnel with no chance of getting lost so I led the way with my ball of light floating over my head. Then came Jenny, Flossie and last of all our troll. Which, when I thought about it, was all wrong. If trouble appeared, I’d be the first to face it. That wasn’t good.

I rearranged the order. We needed Jenny to be somewhere she could be easily grabbed but also the light had to be up front to show the way. And Flossie didn’t want to be at the back because, “It’s spooky at the back.”

After much complaining, moaning and general dissatisfaction that made me want to turn myself in for a quiet cell and a quick execution, we proceeded with troll up front to tank any damage, ball of light stuck to the top of his head. Flossie second where she could do least harm. Jenny next where I could keep an eye on her, and then me. If we were attacked from behind, I was screwed again but at least I was perfectly positioned to lead the retreat. 

“We must keep quiet here,” whispered Keezy after hours of trudging. “We will soon be under the barracks. If they hear us, they may investigate.”

I closed in on Jenny so I was right behind her, my breath on her neck. I could sense her tensing up, probably because as far as she was concerned, I was just some creepy guy who thought he had the right to treat her like a possession. Normally, when a girl gives off that vibe, I give the whole thing a wide berth. But then normally the girl’s wrong.

Jenny kept her word and didn’t make any noise or call out for help. We kept moving until the walls disappeared on either side and opened up into a chamber. Keezy reached up and dug through the mud roof until an opening appeared. He climbed up effortlessly and then helped the rest of us struggle out.

It was night time. We were in a back alley somewhere in Dargot. There were people talking nearby and the sounds of horses and wagons rattling past. Life was carrying on.

“Now where?” said Keezy. He’d taken the shape of a nondescript man in his thirties.

I turned to Jenny. “Anything?”

She shook her head, her focus more on the transformation she’d just witnessed.

I looked around. “There.” I pointed at a tavern with a sign hanging from it. The Pickled Gherkin. It was where we’d spent a lot of time on our last trip here and it could be just the place to jog a few memories for Jenny. Plus, we could get a drink and packet of complimentary dry roasted. It would be nice to be around people who gave you nuts rather than took them away.

As we scurried across the street, I reached out my hand and Jenny instinctively put hers in it. When she realised what she’d done, she tried to pull free but I wasn’t about to let her go. No take backs. 

There were quite a few people about but it was dark enough that no one paid us any attention. Hard to believe this had been the site of a minor massacre, if you can call any massacre minor (probably not without offending someone).

We all piled into the tavern, a rosy glow from the fire making the miserable men hunched over their drinks look like an old painting. 

“Grab a table, I’ll get ‘em in.” I shoved Jenny towards Keezy. “And Flossie, no autographs.” Last time she’d been quite the hit with the locals. I didn’t need her causing a commotion. 

I made my way to the bar. I didn’t have any money but then I was owed by these people and it was time to collect. We were in a city of thousands looking for some lost souls. They were here somewhere but I needed help finding them. Who better than the locals? 

“What can I get you?” said the barman.

“Hello, Enwye.” I took off my hat.

His mouth dropped open—and it only took a bunch of men being stoned to death for someone to actually remember me. It’s the little things that stick in your mind, I guess.

He quickly looked around like there might be someone watching. “Little Chicken,” he called out. “Lock the door.” 

A boy came rushing out from the back, saw me, did a double take, then ran to the door.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” said Enwye. “These are troubled times.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “Troubled times is my middle name. It’s double barrelled. I’m here to call in a favour.”

“We owe you much,” he said nervously. “If we can help  you, we will.”

It was nice of him to offer but I didn’t need help from men expert at wasting their lives down the pub, they weren’t much use to me, or anyone. What I needed was someone who knew how to get shit done.

“Thanks, but it’s not you I wanted to tap up. Can you take me to see Mama Ivy?”

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