"The problem with democracy," thought Treguard, gently wiping the spittle out of his beard, "is that even the morons get a vote."
He, Majida and their guide, a charmless elfin individual calling herself Dervlinne, were presently pushing through the crowded market square of Krochester, a tiny, and less-than-salubrious village about forty miles south of the ruined town of Dunsholm. The exact reason why they were there was threatening to fade from his mind in the tide of frustration he was enduring. What he was in no danger of forgetting was whose fault it was.
He and Majida had set off through Dunkley Wood six days earlier, trying to locate Lord Fear's likely new hideaway. News had reached Knightmare Castle some days before that Marblehead had fallen to Celtic raiders during another furious row between Lord Fear and Grimaldine. What the row had been about this time - the Brollachan had long since returned to its creator - Treguard couldn't imagine, but the key information that Lord Fear and his cronies had disappeared after losing the Castle actually concerned him more than news of a successful defence would have done. At least while Marblehead remained in the hands of the Opposition, Treguard would have no trouble keeping track of Fear. His disappearance into the night meant he could build for the future without hindrance from the Powers That Be.
Treguard and Majida had manipulated the ancient life debt of Arawn, King of Anwin Wood, to provide guidance and support during the journey south toward Fear's fallen realm. Reluctantly, Arawn had assigned the maiden Dervlinne. She was no veteran of the woodland elves, indeed she was barely three thousand years old, but still she was more than efficient enough for Treguard's purpose, which was to find a safe path above ground to Marblehead. Heading that way via the dungeon was not a possibility, as after seven years and more it still hadn't finished reforming itself. So without the usual shortcuts available, it was a case of trudging south until Treguard's aging feet were so sore and so covered in blisters that he felt like a new pair of feet were growing on his heels.
And now they'd arrived in Krochester. Now never let it be said that Majida or Dervlinne were anything less than committed, resourceful and hardened adventurers, gifted explorers to a tee. What's more, they were nothing if not cheerful, supportive companions as well. And they were not cheerful, supportive companions. They were both stubborn, constantly answered back, and would never think twice about wandering off in any direction on a whim and leaving Treguard hunting for them for ages in all these identical trees. Add to all that Majida's unending complaints about the weather being too cold and wet in "thees stoopid Inglant-place of yours", and then repeat the dose for six days, and the degree to which Treguard's temper must have eroded could only be guessed at. Except that if he caught anyone trying to guess such a thing he would probably have yelled at them for it, so it was probably not a good idea anyway.
Treguard had been to Krochester years before - it was during his journey to Earl Geoffrey's tourney at Alvingham Castle - and had been stunned then by the total lack of respect its inhabitants had for authority. When Dervlinne had indicated that the safest path to Marblehead passed through the vicinity of Krochester and that they should divert there to collect fresh supplies, Treguard had been firmly against it. He knew that the villagers of Krochester were bad-tempered and hostile to any man of the gentry and that paying them a visit was like volunteering to get thrown in the stocks. Majida disagreed with him, probably for the sake of it as usual, and as Treguard was out-voted, they went into Krochester and were warmly met with a bracing round of verbal abuse, rotten vegetables and flying spit.
"Mogdred," sighed Treguard, "never gave me this trouble."
The timing could hardly have been better, or worse, depending on your point of view, as they'd guided their lone horse into town on market day. This meant that supplies were available to buy everywhere, but it also meant that there were people everywhere too. And as soon as they saw Treguard and Majida in their luxurious apparel, and Dervlinne, her face and lithe figure hidden in a rich ermine cloak, there were resentful glowers and thrown objects. The three travellers tried to maintain a dignified silence, to turn the other cheek. More accurately, Treguard maintained silence and turned the other cheek. Dervlinne invariably muttered faerie curses in the direction of the throwers, while Majida invariably threw something back at them.
"I hate people who say I told you so," admitted Treguard, "except me. I told you we should have gone on to the next village."
"Ya ya ya," sneered Majida, as she yanked the horse's reins with needless force. "And I s'pose is all my fault!"
"The thought had occurred."
"Typical!" sniffed Majida, narrowly dodging a small mouldy potato some old man had hurled in her direction. "You're hell to walk with, y'know. You never stop complaining...!"
The poor horse, Rod, had been carrying all their supplies across the countryside for them for the past six days and, although he couldn't say so, he was getting almost as annoyed as Treguard with all the moaning and griping from Majida. And the way she kept tugging his reins so hard. He'd rather have been led around by that nice Mellisandre again, but ever since she'd gotten lost in the Maze, Rod was getting bullied by this horrible genie. And being a horse, it goes without saying that he couldn't complain about it.
Treguard turned and gave Majida a look like Lord Fear's favourite fireball. "Majida, I've always wondered what a genie's insides look like. Don't give me any further incentive to find out."
Majida's mouth curled into an upward frown, the usual look of immense stupidity she emanated whenever she couldn't understand an English expression. "What ees thees 'een-sen-teev'-thing?"
"I don't know," answered Treguard, "but it's something that grows more acute with every word from your overused mouth."
He suddenly turned sharply, and, before Majida's overused mouth could offer any more verbiage, said. "What the devil...? Where's Dervlinne gone now?"
Treguard had thought it a bad idea for Dervlinne to enter the village, regardless of whether anyone else went with her. Being an elf, she was not exactly going to be in her element entering a mortal settlement, but she'd insisted on going with them anyway. If he didn't know elves any better, Treguard could have sworn she was scared to be left outside on her own. For that he would hardly blame her, it was not the most congenial of environments or the friendliest of townsfolk to encounter on your own, but there was something undeniably very odd about her. Or rather, there was something very normal about her, normal in human terms, which made her behaviour very odd in an elf. She seemed jumpy, at times irascible, and yet also timid. Her tendency to answer back was not unusual for an elf dealing with mortals, but in his experience elves were good at hiding their fear. Dervlinne was unmistakably the most nervous elf he had ever met, more flappable than many humans he had known. She and Majida predictably were getting on very badly - the only thing they could ever agree on was that Treguard was always wrong, even though more often than not he was proven otherwise.
Now Dervlinne had disappeared from view again, as she had done a number of times while they were in the forest.
"I am here, honoured Dungeon Master," whispered Dervlinne's, soft, almost reed-like voice.
Treguard whirled around again, and was taken aback to find Dervlinne standing less than seven inches from his nose. Oh, how he hated the way elves did that!
"Where did you go this time?" he snapped at her harshly.
"I was here, honoured Dungeon Master," Dervlinne reassured him, her pale green eyes burning into his own like, well, like the eyes of an elf. There was nothing else in the world that was quite like it. "I merely moved to a lower stationary position that allowed me to better evade detection or unwished-for contact with the herbal projectiles these mortals insist on bombarding us with."
"She mean she duck," said Majida simply. "She no use one word when fifty will do. These big-ears people are all like that."
Treguard was about to point out to Majida that she was a fine one to complain about other people talking too much, but in the end thought better of it. "That way," he thought, "lies madness."
Dervlinne glowered at Majida for a moment before turning back to Treguard. "If the honoured Dungeon Master will allow it, I have observed a stall that should serve our need for supplies."
"Well hurry up and show us, big-ears person!" Majida growled.
"If you'd be so good?" said Treguard, a little more diplomatically.
"It will serve the wishes of my liege to serve the wishes of the honoured Dungeon Master," answered Dervlinne, turning and leading them between a pair of ricketty wooden stalls with its owners looking a bit put upon that for some reason nobody wanted to buy their worm-ridden bean sprouts, to a larger and rather grander-looking wagon on the edge of the market square.
Treguard was getting really fed up with Dervlinne calling him "honoured Dungeon Master". As much as anything else, her tone whenever she said it was so thickly laden with sarcasm it wasn't as if she was fooling anyone. It was clear from the first moment that she deeply resented being appointed to the task by Arawn, and no amount of rosy nominatives were going to hide that if she kept uttering them like a curse from Satan's behind.
The wagon they arrived at was somewhat larger than most of the others, and rather better set out. A thin tarpaulin was raised over the top sheltering it, although there was no rain, and the goods on sale were of surprisingly good quality. There was a short, squattish man sat on a stool in front of the wagon, also sheltered by the tarpaulin. He was chewing on a straw that was longer than his own arm, and had a mild, serene expression on his face, apparently focusing on some unseen object in the middle distance. He had an odd green hood wrapped around his head, and a ring on his middle finger made out of an ugly coppery material.
"Yup yup yup," murmured the man with the contentedness of one idly drinking warm mead while the war to end all wars rages all about him. "Har har, yup yup yup." The man looked at Treguard expectantly, then Majida, then Dervlinne, then finally his eyes settled on the horse who was still feeling peeved about getting dragged around this filthy market square by a rude Hispanic genie. "Yup yup yup. Nop? Nop nop nop." He looked away from them again and returned to his task of staring at unseen objects about two and three-eights of an inch from his eyeball. It was clearly a difficult task for him, one that required a great deal of concentration.
Treguard looked at Majida and Dervlinne, then at the man again. "Erm, excuse me?"
The man's eyes turned away from the particular air molecule that was apparently holding them in thrall, and aimed themselves at Treguard once more. "Yup yup yup," he explained.
"I think that mean 'Can I help?'" Majida put in helpfully.
"We're er, on a journey south," Treguard explained to the man in the green hood. "About forty miles or so further."
"Oh," said the man brightening. "Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Seeseeseesee!" His mouth spurted some droplets of unpleasantness as he spoke.
Treguard blinked. "'Si'? What, are you Spanish as well?"
"Of course he not Spaniss," wailed Majida. "He just talk funny."
Again, Treguard was tempted to make the point to Majida about pots and kettles, again he resisted. To the man;"Do you understand what I'm saying?"
The man nodded benignly. "Stanstanstan yoooo ama sayy? Questy zat." The look on his face had changed from cheerful brainlessness to cunning amusement.
Treguard stared at him for a long moment, suddenly gripped by a conviction that he'd met this man somewhere before. It wasn't easy to work out where, whoever it was, the way he spoke seemed to make thought very difficult. That, thought Treguard with poor grace, might explain a few things about him.
"Traytraytray!" called the man, suddenly grabbing Treguard's hand and shaking it vigorously. "Newyoofinkadid! Bam! Bam!" He pointed at himself proudly.
Treguard was initially taken aback at this display of excited over familiarity, not to mention a fresh stream of uncontrolled water from the man's gob.
"He says he knows you, honoured Dungeon Master," explained Dervlinne. Treguard and Majida looked at her doubtfully.
"You understand him?" asked Treguard.
"Yes," said Dervlinne. "My people have encountered this condition in mortals many times over the centuries. It's called 'No front teeth'."
The man grinned a ghastly toothless smile.
"Ah," nodded Majida, "That what they call 'The spit hittin' the fan', ya?"
"Um..." said Dervlinne.
"Certainly not!" snarled Treguard. The memory of Majida once calling a dungeoneer a 'smart bottom' still left him rigid with embarrassment in his quieter moments, and the thought still troubled him that one of these days she might get a vulgarism right. He turned to the man hurriedly, before Majida could explore the subject any further. "You know me?"
Dervlinne interjected again. "He seems somewhat perturbed that you don't recognise him, honoured one. He says his name is Bumptious."
Treguard looked at the man in astonishment, suddenly realising that he was indeed a dwarf. But Bumptious? Could he...? He saw the way the man was nodding happily. Well by crikey; it was Bumptious, the gold miner who had excavated level two of the Knightmare dungeon over ten years before. He had shaved off his beard, and Treguard couldn't for the life of him work out why he'd have chosen such a horrible hood, but it was him alright.
"Bumptious! What are you doing he-...?" Treguard's voice tailed off when he realised that he wouldn't understand the answer. "Never mind that. Tell Dervlinne what happened to your teeth."
Bumptious nodded and embarked on another stream of gibberish, while Dervlinne translated;-
"He says that he had an accident while mining a dungeon below a nearby castle."
"Oh?" said Majida, eyebrow raised. "Which castle?"
"It was attacked a few weeks ago," continued Dervlinne. It was unclear whether it was her who was ignoring Majida or if it was Bumptious. "The raiders brought down one of the castle's walls, and it caused a rockslide in the caverns below ground..."
"Marblehead!" thundered Treguard. "You were mining Marblehead!"
"Yupyupyup!!" confirmed Bumptious, his head nodding up and down so rapidly his voluminous nose almost faded into a blur, then continued his story.
"The cave-in wouldn't have happened, of course," sniffed the elf as she translated with just a hint of disdain, "if the dwarf hadn't carelessly weakened the cavern walls without firstly putting up appropriate tunnel supports..." Bumptious gave Dervlinne the affronted look of a man whose words had been blatantly-mistranslated in front of a foreign audience, "...and he was caught in the rockslide."
"Hurt did it?" asked Majida obtusely.
Bumptious jabbered more details to the elf.
"To be precise," Dervlinne translated, "he lost nine teeth, suffered a broken jaw, sprained an elbow ligament, jarred his neck, and split his tongue in three separate places."
"Oooh nasty," commented Treguard with sympathy.
"Is that why he no talk proper then?" asked Majida.
Even by the highest standards of cretiny, standards which surely applied to Majida, this question belonged on the list of the all-time truly stupid questions. Therefore, Treguard and Dervlinne gave her a quick look that said "Shut up, before we trim your fingernails very clumsily with a giant pickaxe" and returned their attention to Bumptious. "Why were you excavating there of all places?" demanded Treguard. "Surely there must be dozens of safer places to dig for gold?"
Jabber, jabber went Bumptious.
"Honoured Dungeon Master," explained Dervlinne, casually sidestepping a flying lettuce hurled in her direction from the ill-mannered crowd, "It seems the dwarf was not attempting to obtain gold. He was prospecting for a rare mineral reputed to be found in the territory. Apparently said mineral was the staple diet of the Mozcaro..."
"What are dees Moskeetos?" demanded Majida.
"The Mozcaro," Treguard corrected her firmly, "are a tribe of gnomic scholars from Cornwall. Hordriss told me about them once. They're an aloof bunch, peace-loving but quarrelsome in dealing with humans. They have the sharpest teeth of all the creatures of England."
"They better if they eat rock."
"The Mozcaro are in great danger, honoured one," continued Dervlinne, determined not to be deflected from the subject. "Their dependence on the mineral paloranite to feed themselves forces them to lead a nomadic existence to find food. Unfortunately they have been unable to locate a fresh source of the mineral, and their stocks are dangerously low. This is why they have requested the help of Bumptious."
Treguard shook his head quietly, and ignored the rest of Dervlinne's translation - he could guess the rest of it. Bumptious had been convinced to come out of retirement and he had searched all the possible territories he could for paloranite. Innocently he had approached Marblehead, unaware of the identity of its vile Lord, and requested that he be allowed to search the caverns of the dungeon below. And in return for an extortionate fee, the foul Technomancer had agreed to let Bumptious prospect in his castle's dungeon.
"...And Bumptious is now here selling goods to raise the funds he needs to replace his mining equipment," Dervlinne concluded, now sounding incredibly bored with the sound of her own voice. "Once he's managed to restock he plans to return to Marblehead and resume his search."
"How like Lord Fear to exploit the dire needs of others for his own gain!" spat Treguard. "This makes our task doubly urgent. We shall head for Marblehead with you, Bumptious, and help you search for the ore you need."
"Shall we?" said Majida in surprise. "What about the Fearlord thingy-person? He wont wan us digging his dungeons up."
"We need to investigate the ruins of Marblehead anyway, Majida," Treguard pointed out. "We might as well help Bumptious out while were there. It would be in keeping with our code of honour wouldn't you say?"
"Oh yeah, big right, of course," sneered Majida, "Dees I get from guy who send little children into damp haunted dungeons to fight skeletrons and big bug-eye things. Now he talk about code of honour, ya?"
"That's right," answered Treguard. "But I could talk about examining your insides again if you prefer." Treguard surveyed the contents of the stall. They all looked like they could be useful for the journey ahead, and even for a little dungeoneering. That surprised Treguard somewhat. Although Bumptious would have had to be prepared for a few of the nastier entities that lay below Marblehead, with the dungeons still out of phase at present such threats would surely have been modest. As a professional miner, surely Bumptious would have been concerned with the correct equipment for digging? But then Bumptious probably hadn't realised that the dungeons were currently out of phase. "Alright Bumptious, pack up the wagon and our horse can drag it south for you. We'll need most of this equipment when we get there."
Everyone looked up at Rod, who was making a slightly miffed whinnying noise in response to these tidings.
"Sorry," said Treguard, politely patting Rod's nose. He felt a bit embarrassed talking to a horse in front of other people, but it seemed the least gesture he should make.
Majida, typically, was less sympathetic. "Oh shut up, cat meat!" she snarled, thumping the long-suffering animal on the same nose.
Rod was now mightily offended, and more than a little upset at receiving so little gratitude. Here he was, straining his poor tired muscles to haul all this heavy equipment across the damp lands of the North for these whining hominids, and this was the thanks he got. But he was a proud, upstanding horse and would not resort to cowardly running away or spiteful tit-for-tat bulshiness. So he satisfied himself with a lengthy step forward, barging Majida to the floor, and a grunt of triumph.
Treguard tried not too hard to hide a smug grin as he helped Majida to her feet. The genie looked down at her now-filthy fatigues in horror. "All dis Inglant-muddiness of yours, I'm dripping in!" she cried, barely coherently.
"Yes," confirmed Dervlinne, not realising that it was another complaint, not a request for clarification. "Perhaps," she offered as an afterthought, "you should have worn something more appropriate for foresting before you set off? Those clothes would be ideal if we were in the middle of a desert. But this is hardly a desert."
Bumptious also had a sadistic grin on his face. It clearly hadn't taken him any longer than Dervlinne to start loathing Majida. He turned to Treguard and started jabbering again.
"What's he saying?" asked Treguard, sidestepping another rotten vegetable surreptitiously hurled his way from the crowd.
"He says he is grateful for your offer, honoured one, and asks when we shall depart." Dervlinne sounded slightly cheesed off, the conversation clearly a chore to her, but Treguard, diplomatic to the last, made no objection.
"I'd like to leave town as soon as possible," said Treguard. Unsurprisingly, he got no quarrel with this suggestion. "We need rest though, so I suggest we head about half a mile out, then set up camp."
"Hey," smiled Majida, much impressed, "You make some sense thees time."
"Thank you," growled Treguard, helping Bumptious to start loading the wagon, "That's most encouraging."
Night had fallen by the time Treguard's ramshackle band found a reasonably sheltered spot to make camp. They were in fact a good deal more than a mile South of Krochester by now, and had entered the vast wooded mass of Delamere. The extra canopy of leaves on the high branches had been worth all the searching though, because the dark clouds had rolled in, and the air was already suffused with annoying spots of drizzle. It was quite a pleasant patch of ground they'd set up on. The ground was firm, but cushioned with a fall of gentle heathers and bracken, and it was dry.
Majida, somewhat sullenly, had gathered wood and they'd built a good warming fire to heat their aching joints. Bumptious, uncomplaining - largely because complaint is quite futile when you can't speak clearly - was cheerfully warming his hands between constantly jostling with Majida for more elbow room. The reason so much space was required was Majida insisted on reclining around a ridiculously large stretch of the fire's perimeter, trying to get her ruined clothes at least dry enough to continue hiking in a reasonable degree of comfort.
Dervlinne had soon tired of their constant shoving and nudging which had inevitably caught her up in it, and had climbed into the branches of the nearest tree, curled up, and manifestly failed to fall asleep.
Treguard meanwhile sat to one side on a rock, trying to untangle some of the knots in his grey-streaked beard. He was trying to give the impression that he was above mixing with his petty companions, and there was an echo of truth in this. But he was more trying to avoid showing the others his greatest weakness. His age. After nearly a week of wandering through the Northern wilderness he was at the end of his tether physically, and he wasn't sure if he was going to be in any kind of worthwhile shape when they arrived at Marblehead, which would hopefully be in three days. He really felt he was getting too old for all this. This was what his dungeoneers were for. But with the Dungeon paths closed, the elf paths dormant, and the path between the Past and the Future still dispersed, he was having to do this himself, and he was having to go the long way round as well.
He so wished he hadn't installed the Pool of Veracity in Dunshelm. When the great Troll had invaded the Castle, the magic mirror in the antechamber was damaged - only slightly, it still worked, but the damage was just great enough that the mirror couldn't survive a complete phase shift of the Dungeon. While rooting around for a replacement, the Powers That Be raided Lord Fear's hideout above Goth, and found it abandoned. But left behind was the infamous Pool of Veracity through which Lord Fear had for so long witnessed, and wherever possible perverted, the Outside World, and Treguard had decided that it was probably a suitable replacement.
How wrong he had been. The implements of Techno-sorcery were firmly Lord Fear's preserve or no one's at all. The Pool had tainted the purer magic of the Dungeon, which, be it dominated by the evil of the Gruagach or cleansed by Chivalry, had never before been sullied by technology. Now the Dungeon seemed unable to reform itself, and Treguard had even found that removing the Pool again had made no difference - the damage was done. And now without the power of the Dungeon behind him, he had lost his biggest advantage, and so the last few years of battle against Fear had been unhappy ones. This expedition was just the latest example of the problems he had been having. Pleanty of endeavour, just not enough mobility.
He remembered wistfully what a fast and powerful swordsman he had been in his younger years. He wished that this sort of thing could have happened back then instead, when he still had the energy to cope without the aid of the Dungeon paths. Of course, things might not have turned out any better, because back then he had been a mercenary, and he would have as likely accepted a job from Lord Fear as fought against him. Pathetic. Still, it showed that age had its advantages - the greedy sadist Treguard had been in his youth wouldn't have had the wit to understand the threat that Fear posed. Truth be told, he hadn't been a whole lot better in Mogdred's time either - Treguard nowadays cringed when he remembered his short-sighted amusement at the misfortune of so many of his own dungeoneers as they fell to the perils of Knightmare. There was so much he could have achieved back then, and what did he do? Pour scorn on his own!
Why is youth wasted on the young? he thought. Or is that, why is wisdom wasted on old age?
"...And did those feet in ancient times," proclaimed the snarling tones of history's most talented gloater, "...walk upon England's mountains green, and say 'Golly, what a mound of nose excreta! Let's change it into something red and lumpy...' and..." Lord Fear fixed his captive audience with a warning glare, "...I can promise you that when they said 'red and lumpy' they weren't talking about spaghetti sauce."
Skarkill sighed as he watched this latest display of grotesque theatrics from his master. At present he and Raptor were sitting on either side of a dungeon cell, while its sole occupant was forced to listen to round after round of Fear's unctuous monologues.
"It's all about me, of course," continued Fear, "so it goes without saying that it's all about brilliance too."
"If it goes without saying," said the nasal tones of the suffering occupant in the cell, "don't say it."
"Please be quiet when I'm talking at you," said Fear, rather politely all things considered.
"What do you mean 'or'?" Fear demanded. "You mean you want me to threaten you? I can promise you, there's no-one better at that."
"Ah, don't make me laugh," grumbled the tough voice of the prisoner.
"Good idea," smirked Fear. "I don't want you to die laughing, do I?"
"Why not?" asked the prisoner. "I can't still be of any use to you now, surely?"
"Would it were so. The spell will stop working when you die," explained Fear. "I'll be perfectly happy to tickle you to death once Treguard is beaten. But not before."
"Oh." The prisoner seemed to turn this thought over in his head for a moment. "Well thanks for clearin' that up."
"My pleasure," answered Fear. "I do love the sound of my own voice."
"Don' we all, yer Fearship?" Skarkill put in hurriedly. Raptor nodded vigorously as well.
"No," said the prisoner. "I thought it was just a method of torture. I'm sure being forced to listen to you contravenes a Magna Carta of some kind."
Fear scowled. Happily, before he could offer his own opinions, there was the irritating buzz of the communication alarm. Fear turned from the cell-chamber and walked to his sixteen million colour/stereo-surround-sound techno-magic mirror. It remained dark, but a hissing voice rang out across the room.
"Yes, Lissard, me ol' Kermit?" Lord Fear responded. "What news?"
"Your Lorrd-nessss!" said the voice of the Atlantean. "All is prossss-ceeding according to schedule. Treguard has set up camp-nessss to the South of Krochess-ss-ssster. On present progress-nessss, arrival at Marblehead will be in three dayssss. Precisssse-ly as you antissss-cipated-ness."
Lord Fear rubbed his hands together in delight. "Excellent, Lissard. Continue to keep me updated, old flubber."
"Of coursssse, your Lord-nesss-..."
Lord Fear snapped his fingers and the mirror switched off. Fear returned to the cell-chamber "His voice is quite pleasant over the wireless don't ya think? Nice not to get showered in frog-slobber every time he says 'isosceles' for a change."
Skarkill shrugged non-commitally. Lord Fear shrugged as well, unconcerned. If Skarkill didn't have the intelligence to see a blessing even when it ran up to him and hit him over the head with a cricket bat that was his problem. Fear then spread his arms melodramatically. Skarkill and Raptor recoiled slightly, half-expecting the fireballs to fly. But instead, Fear resumed his monologue.
"And as he gazed down upon the rank and file, as he saw the full artistic glory of his creation, the full terror of his treachery, the fruits of his conquest, the world did gaze upon him and they did cry 'Fear! Fear! Ruler of all England! Ruler of the seven Worlds...!'"
Raptor looked at Skarkill enquiringly. Being a comparatively newer recruit and having always tried to avoid his boss as much as possible, Raptor still didn't understand some of Fear's more peculiar habits as well as the other Opposition goons. "Who's 'e talkin' about?" he whispered.
Skarkill let loose another sigh. "'Imself. 'E's going through the 'Third Person Delusions of Grandeur' phase now."
Raptor nodded wisely to himself. "Right. Instead of the usual 'first person gloating till 'is face cracks in two' phase?"
Skarkill smiled faintly. "That's right. You're gettin' the 'ang of it at last." The smile melted into a resigned shrug of boredom. "This place turns into a right theatre when he gets in the mood."
While slicing through the undergrowth with the mid-section of Morpheus' blade, Treguard snarled as he snagged his ankle on a thick bramble-branch. He felt the tiny barbs digging into the leather of his boots, and had to bend over to untether his foot before he could resume walking.
It had been two days now since leaving Krochester, and having departed the forest of Delamere, they were now trekking through wild and thick marshland. The weather had turned increasingly wet and windy, and as the rain lashed into the faces of the tiny band, so tempers had begun to fray again. Trees were few and far between around this area, so shelter was not an option, and this of course meant Majida was complaining more than ever. "We supposed to walk, no swim! It too cold for swim. I cold. I wet." She ran up to Treguard and stood nose to nose with him, a look of the shallowest hatred in her dark eyes. "You listen? I WET!
"I knew you'd find something to say which I could agree with some day," grunted Treguard. "Look at it this way, Miss. At least all the rain's washing the mud out of your clothes."
"Oh yea, great," said Majida, "New-moanier ees much more fun, yea?"
"Oh yes," snarled Treguard, pushing past her and resuming the march through the deep marshes. "Trust me, Majida, right now the thought of you contracting pneumonia is the one thing which is keeping me going."
A small way ahead he saw Dervlinne had led the horse and wagon past them and was heading for a cluster of trees in the distance. "We can take shelter there until the storm subsides, honoured Dungeon Master," she called back.
Treguard looked at Majida and Bumptious, both looking exhausted and bedraggled. It was getting to the point where none of them would be in any shape to explore Marblehead if they didn't get regular opportunities to recuperate. Treguard nodded, and they pushed on to take cover under the trees.
As is always the way with these things, by the time they arrived the storm was beginning to ease off a little, but the travellers were still grateful for the chance to rest in the (relative) dry. Dervlinne had tethered the uncomplaining Rod to one of the smaller trees, making sure he had enough cover from the rain and plenty of grass to refresh himself on. Then she joined the others who were all sat under the largest tree, a magnificent grey oak. Treguard, unconcerned by the impact it would have on his popularity, pulled his boots off and gave his toes a sorely needed breath of air. Majida was now too soaked to complain anymore, be it about the shocking state of her clothes ot the even more shocking smell of Treguard's feet. Bumptious jabbered cheerfully to everyone who would listen, which in this case was only the horse, about how grateful he was to Treguard and his companions for their assistance in this vital quest to save the Mozcaro, and how much he appreciated the importance of their own quest, and how he would of course do everything he could to help them with that as a return of favour, and how much he sympathised with them these hardships they were putting themselves through for the greater common good, and how he respected them all the more for it, and how he understood keenly that they were clearly brave upstanding and chivalrous people whom he was deeply honoured to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with in this most dire of emergencies and that of course he was in no way attempting to imply that his own mission was any more important than their own and that he deeply hoped that if they did choose to infer that, that he had in no way contravened any of the bye-laws of Knightmare Castle, but that if he had that he was deeply sorry for the offence he had caused and that he wouldn't have ever done such a thing if he hadn't still been half-insensible from the injuries he had suffered at Marblehead, which were a deeply shameful blemish on the Opposition's safety record and in fact he was tempted to sue Lord Fear for the damages, so in fact, wouldn't it be fairer if Treguard blamed Lord Fear for the offence, and consequently sued him, although of course he did see, if that was how they felt, that it is a bit much to blame Fear for everything that was wrong with the World, because of course, there were some bad things which happened from time-to-time which even Fear was not responsible for, and indeed had nothing to do with at all.
Which was all a bit pointless, because of course, Treguard, Majida and Rod couldn't understand a word he was saying, and Dervlinne wasn't paying attention.
"Dervderv!" pouted Bumptious when he realised he might as well have been talking to the tree for all the response he was getting.
Dervlinne looked up at him, her expression broken with lines of concern.
"Something troubles you, she-sprite?" asked Treguard, his tone sigh-like, the relief he felt at getting off his feet almost tangible.
"She probably sniffing your stinking feets," said Majida sourly.
"There is a presence here, honoured one," answered Dervlinne. She looked like she was in a trance. "I sense it..."
"I already tell you," inisisted Majida. "It just Treguard's stinking..."
"Shut up, Majida," suggested Treguard, slowly hauling himself back to his feet. He grunted unhappily at the renewed exertion - he'd only been seated a moment but already his joints had started tightening up. "What presence do you sense?"
"There is something here, that is beyond question," Dervlinne nodded to herself. She was staring at the oak now. "Something, someone. Very familiar..."
There was a sharp whooshing sound that made Majida and Bumptious spring to their feet with a start. Treguard looked up and saw a branch of the tree suddenly bending downwards and reaching out. He immediately drew his sword as he realised that the branch was reaching for Dervlinne.
Dervlinne was lithe, Dervlinne was fast... but she stood rooted to the spot, her jaw dropped, her eyes fixed on the trunk of the tree.
"Dervlinne, move!" snarled Treguard, raising Morpheus to strike. "It's a dryad..."
The branch however wrapped itself around Dervlinne's slender figure. With a hideous creak it raised itself up, lifting Dervlinne off her feet and suspending her high above the ground. And yet still she uttered not a sound, but carried on staring with an icy wonderment. While Majida and Bumptious jumped away from the tree and hunted frantically for cover, Treguard turned and thrust the blade deep into the tree's bough. There came from within it a most unearthly sound, a strangled howl of agony and rage, and another branch suddenly swung down and swatted Treguard aside as if he were a mere insect. The branch then curled around the sword and yanked it effortlessly from the wooden flesh of the mighty tree troll.
Treguard was dazed where he lay. He sat up woozily, rubbed the nasty red graze on his cheek where the branch had struck him. He looked up and saw that the branches of the tree were reaching in all directions, for Majida, for Bumptious, and for him. Dervlinne was still held in thrall, looking more curious than concerned, while Morpheus was also held in the dryad's vice-like grasp, far beyond Treguards reach. He tried to edge away from the branch as it snatched at him, but it was no good. If he stood it would make it easier to reach him, as long as he stayed squat he wouldn't be able to move fast enough.
And then the face appeared. The very bark of the tree's skin seemed to fold in and split, to warp and to concentralise, like a pool of water with two stones cast into it. The eyes were hooded and dark, and to look into them gave the impression of staring into the passage of infinity itself, such was their age, so great was the time they had seen. The mouth split open the base of the trunk, and a deep, yokelling voice rumbled forth.
"Clumsy feet, closed minds, careless words and thoughtless sounds. We will NOT abide them!"
Treguard was finally snared in the grasp of the branch. He felt its sharp thorns digging into him as it curled about him and slowly hauled him upwards.
"Oakley..." hissed Treguard, recognising the tree troll, "How can you be here...?"
"'Tis anywhere we can be, where the land be kind to tree," growled Oakley. "Those who walk the path must understand the path they walk. But when the trees do sleep, you talk and talk and talk. Leaf mold we will not. So hang you we will until you rot."
"No!" squealed Majida. "We no know you were sleep..."
"Ignorance is no excuse!" thundered the tree troll. "You walk a path you do not know. So now you face the moment of truth. Death is thus where you must go..."
Treguard knew much about this fearsome creature from Pickle. It was very much like a wall monster in many respects, and although more intelligent, it had some similar weaknesses in common with, not just wall monsters, but many faerie creatures. One such weakness, he knew, was its inability to resist a puzzle.
"I challenge you!" Treguard gasped.
"Challenge?" exclaimed Oakley, slightly perplexed.
"I know the path, I understand it!" Treguard appealed hurriedly. "If you don't believe me, test me."
Oakley emitted a soft boom of laughter. "Us? Test you? For false and true? Test your mind about forest and tree? Ha! Very well, so it shall be. So test you we will, and test you now. Test your thoughts, your belief, and your wooded know-how. Free you'll all be if you tell a good tale. But crush you we will if the test you fail!"
Treguard didn't need it pointing out to him that he was in no position to dispute these terms. He and his companions were all held fast in the dryad's immense grasp, and even if they could get free, it would be the work of just seconds for Oakley to kill them. They were slaves to Oakley's will, all of them. That is, all of them bar the horse, whom Treguard now noticed was watching their predicament with something that looked suspiciously like callous amusement. "Give me your test, tree troll!" snapped Treguard, trying absurdly to make it sound like he was the one in command of the situation. "I'll answer you."
"Very well," rumbled Oakley.
"Twas on the forest isle of Old Kintyre, the first of the Westermen did walk on fire. Trapped he was, in a forest in flames. There was nowhere to run, no time for games. The North half of the isle was a raging inferno, and it spread with the breezes, for south did they blow. The man could not swim, no help was at hand, no boat was in reach to take him clear of this land. From all corners the island would soon be afire, every inch swallowed in its terrible ire. All at hand were two sticks to fight for life, no use against a blaze though, its fury so rife. And yet he survived, unscathed bar inhalation, so tell me how he escaped the dire conflagration."
That was the conundrum he had to solve? Tricky. Treguard thought for a long moment. It was safe to assume that it had nothing to do with gathering water from the shore and throwing it on the flames. But how could a man trapped on an island, with nothing available to him but a pair of sticks possibly escape if he couldn't swim? He could hardly build a raft out of them. So what could he do...?
To be continued