RUMOURS OF WAR by Gavin Chappell
 
Gerald turned to Norman, who showed signs of rushing outside into the night after Percy.
 
‘You stay where you are!’ he said.
 
‘But where’s Percy gone?’ Norman demanded.
 
Gerald shook his head. ‘First we lost Brian... Now Percy’s gone.’ He rounded on Tito the taverner, who cringed back abjectly. ‘You! Baby killer! Where’ve they gone?’
 
Tito shook his head in dismay and uncertainty. ‘I don’t know!’ he said. ‘I suppose... the servitors of Zorn took Brian... But Percy ran off into the trees.’
 
‘I saw that!’ Gerald exploded. ‘After he’d told us no one should leave here, as well.’ He sighed. ‘We’d better follow. But together. No way are we getting more split up.’
 
He’d seen plenty of horror movies; well, two at least when he was at his big brother Andy’s. And he knew that anyone in this situation getting split up from the main group was going to end up horribly dead. ‘We can’t stay in here, anyway,’ he added.
 
‘I think I should stay,’ Tito said nervously.
 
‘Why?’ asked Gerald. ‘Afraid of your past catching up with you? You deserve everything those demons do to you, baby killer. Brian and Percy don’t.’
 
‘You said you’d protect me!’ Tito wailed.
 
Norman nodded. ‘We did say we’d help,’ he reminded Gerald.
 
‘This isn’t helping Brian or Percy!’ Gerald snarled. ‘Come on!’
 
He led them out into the darkness.
 
They paused at the edge of the yard. The charred stench of the burnt outbuilding was rank in the air. Beyond, all was darkness and gloom. Across the meadow loomed the trees. Gerald looked back.
 
The light of the glowing gems in the tavern made the building shine out like a beacon in the midst of the darkness. Even in the gloom, Gerald could see the holes in the thatch roof where something had been trampling up and down. The thing Brian had gone to fight. That brave, stupid, pillock. Probably dead by now.
 
‘So where’ve they gone?’ Norman asked. ‘You know, it would take less time to find them if we split up...’ He broke off as Gerald lifted a warning finger.
 
‘We are not splitting up,’ he snapped. ‘We stay together!’
 
He whirled round at a crashing sound from the trees behind the tavern and he led his companions at a run round the back. A figure blundered out into the moonlight. Gerald drew his sword then halted, bewildered. It was Brian, still clutching his bastard sword.
 
‘Get back…!’ Brian cried. ‘Get back inside! It’s coming! It’s coming!’
 
He fell forward and lay still as death in the middle of the moonlit vegetable patch.
 
Gerald and Norman exchanged perturbed glances. ‘Either Brian’s just had a very bad acting class,’ said Gerald thoughtfully, ‘or some real shit’s going down.’
 
‘Come on,’ said Norman, and they hurried across the vegetable patch to the spot where Brian lay. Gerald checked his friend’s breathing.
 
‘Well, he’s still alive,’ he said, ‘though he’d have died on stage... You take his legs.’
 
Together they half-carried half-dragged him back round the tavern and into the yard. Gerald looked around, frowning.
 
‘For fuck’s sake!’ he exclaimed. ‘Now Tito’s gone!’
 
‘This is just getting silly,’ Norman muttered. ‘Let’s get Brian inside. Some free beer will bring him round.’
 
Brian lifted his head. ‘Free beer?’
 
They sat at the bar, Brian guzzling beer like it was pop. Gerald gave him a moment to recover, then asked:
 
‘What happened to you out there? Did you see the demons? You just ran out with your sword and...’
 
‘And then everything went quiet,’ Norman said.
 
‘I ran outside into the night, sword held high,’ Brian said, and swigged at his ale. ‘I stood in the yard, and saw the thing that trampled upon the roof. As I watched, it leapt down into the darkness on the far side. It was the thing we saw before! I raced round the tavern building to see it streaking across the vegetable patch. So I followed it.’
 
‘Didn’t you think to turn back?’ asked Gerald. ‘Didn’t it occur to you that chasing a demon, on your own, into the depths of a forest you didn’t even know by daylight, on the night of the full moon, was a bit... rash?’
 
‘No,’ said Brian.
 
‘Pillock,’ said Gerald.
 
‘Come on, Gerald,’ said Norman. ‘Let’s hear what Brian has to say.’
 
‘I could see the thing through the trees at first,’ Brian said. ‘Then it vanished.’
 
‘What, really vanished?’ Norman asked. ‘Into thin air?’
 
Brian shrugged. ‘It’s dark in there, and there’s lots of trees. Maybe it just went behind one. But it... scared me.’
 
‘Scared? You?’ said Gerald, surprised by the admission. ‘I didn’t think you did that.’
 
‘Then I got lost in the trees. And it reappeared. I saw it ahead of me once, then two times, once on either side. First, I tried to get to it, but there was always something between us. Then I started thinking it was leading me into the trees to kill me. I realized I was lost. So I ran and ran. I thought I was lost for good. I kept seeing the thing through the trees. It was following me. Then... Then I burst out of the trees, saw you and... and I knew no more.’
 
‘You fainted, you wuss …’ Gerald began, but Norman interrupted him.
 
‘Look!’ he cried, pointing at the tavern door. Gerald spun round.
 
The thing was there in the yard, the great tall black thing with its goat-skull head. The emissary of the demon Zorn. It seemed to be gazing at them.
 
‘Run!’ wailed Brian. ‘Is there a way out the back?’
 
Gerald ran. Straight towards the thing. When the emissary of Zorn saw him running towards him, it bolted and ran across the yard towards the trees. Gerald veered off to intercept it. It raced past him. He flung himself at where its legs should be, in a rugby tackle that would have warmed the cockles of his despairing PE teacher’s heart.
 
Immediately the entire thing collapsed. Through the stinking folds of a black cloak Gerald felt threshing legs and something firm and hard, like wood. The emissary of Zorn hit the ground with a thump and a very human groan, and the goat skull bounced off into a patch of nettles.
 
The cloak began to thrash again, as something tried to escape. Gerald tried to grab it, but a swift kick knocked him back. Then Brian was there, sword lifted high. Norman stepped past, and ripped off the cloak.
 
Gerald rose, rubbing his bruised face. A tall, thin man had been revealed. Gerald recognised him by the long white moustaches that seemed to glow in the moonlight.
 
‘Harek!’ Norman gasped.
 
‘So it was the janitor all along,’ Gerald muttered.
 
Brian laughed, and lowered his sword. He prodded it at Harek, who glowered up at them. ‘Go on! Go on! Say “Curses, foiled again!”‘
 
‘You’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for us pesky kids.’ Gerald joined in the mockery. Harek looked bewildered and Gerald realised he’d never seen Scooby Doo.
 
‘But what were you doing lurking about dressed as a demon?’ Gerald added, gingerishly lifting the ox-skull out of the nettles. ‘You weren’t the sorcerer, were you? Surely you couldn’t have been.’
 
‘It was you!’
 
Gerald looked up to see Tito appear from the darkness.
 
‘I went looking for my doom,’ he said. ‘I thought it unfair to drag these people with me. I wanted it all to end. Now I see it was you, Harek. Why? Why?’
 
‘I think I can answer that.’
 
Gerald looked round. Percy was approaching from the meadow, forcing before him a bound, gagged figure wearing robes and a pointed hat.
 
‘I think this is all getting a bit too melodramatic,’ Gerald said wearily. ‘Anyone else hiding in the wings? No? Good. Okay, Percy. Answer it.’
 
‘Say hello to the Conjurer Kalitkin,’ Percy said, indicating the bound sorcerer. ‘This sod explained it all to me after a bit of encouragement.’
 
‘Where did you go?’ Gerald demanded.
 
There was a sudden blur of movement as Harek leapt up and tried to run. Tito pounced on him and bore him to the ground. He seemed braver than he had done before, now the enemy had been reduced to human-size. ‘You’re going nowhere,’ he growled.
 
‘Let me go,’ Harek mumbled. ‘Let me go!’
 
Tito punched him and he simmered down.
 
‘Percy?’ Gerald said, as if nothing had happened.
 
‘I saw this twat lurking about outside, so I went after him,’ Percy explained.
 
‘Good on ya,’ said Brian.
 
‘He picked up his skirts and ran. It was quite a chase, but I ran him down in the end. I threatened him with my sword and he soon blabbed. You won’t believe this.’
 
‘Won’t believe what? Are they both in league with this demon?’
 
‘There’s no demon,’ said Percy. ‘It’s all a con, a racket. The Conjurer Kalitkin is a failed sorcerer, can’t cast a single spell. But he cooked up this plot with Harek, who wanted to buy himself a farm and give up working for Tito. They just wanted a good supply of babies.’
 
Everyone was silent. Gerald stared from Harek to the gagged Kalitkin and back again.
 
‘Why?’ he asked in confusion. He hated babies. His big sister had had one last Christmas. Noisy, greedy little bastard, always crapping in its nappies. He couldn’t see the appeal. Why had this couple of weirdoes wanted them?
 
Kalitkin struggled wildly. Percy pulled off his gag. ‘You want to explain, conjurer?’ he asked.
 
‘What I wanted to say,’ said the conjurer in a high-pitched voice, ‘is what I came here to tell Harek. Harek!’ He addressed the pinioned old man. ‘The market has gone. Our customers don’t want our trade.’
 
‘What?’ exclaimed Harek in horror. ‘Has it all been pointless?’ He looked guiltily up at Tito, who snarled.
 
‘Who are your customers?’ Gerald demanded.
 
‘Merchants in the Mountain Duchies,’ explained Kalitkin. ‘They trade with the ogre kingdom.’
 
‘The ogre kingdom?’ Tito said in horror. ‘But the ogres eat... eat people...’
 
‘They prefer babies,’ said Kalitkin with an apologetic look. He nodded towards the tavern, where light from the glowing gems still spilled out into the gloom. ‘You light your hostelry with carbuncles? Glow-gems?’
 
Tito nodded, puzzled. ‘What’s that got to do with it?’
 
‘My associates trade with the ogres, who mine the carbuncles in their own kingdom,’ explained Kalitkin. ‘The ogres import many things from human lands, but what they prize most are human babies. It has made my associates rich.’
 
‘But now they don’t want your trade?’ Gerald demanded. ‘Why?’
 
‘There is war between Duke Dalimer and the ogres,’ Kalitkin explained. ‘That was why I came here, to tell Harek that the game was up.’
 
Tito rose and approached Kalitkin, his face a grim mask. ‘You put me through horror—for what? I’ll kill you!’
 
He seized the bound sorcerer by the throat and began to throttle him.
 
Gerald looked around at his friends. Brian watched with excitement, Percy with contempt, Norman with dismay. Gerald reached over and dragged Tito back, with the help of Norman, then Percy.
 
‘Enough of that,’ he told the struggling taverner. ‘These scum should face justice.’
 
Tito looked up angrily. ‘I’ll give them justice!’ he frothed.
 
‘No,’ said Gerald. ‘I tell you what you’ll do. You’ll take them back to Mayor Gall in Wishbone Village. Let him be the judge. And let him know what’s been happening. He needs to know. There may be more of these ... con-artists still around.’
 
‘What are you going to do?’ Tito asked sullenly.
 
‘We’re going to war,’ said Gerald.
 
 
 
***
 
 
 
Kalitkin and Harek were bound and imprisoned in Tito’s cellar, and everyone else went to sleep in Tito’s finest room. They slept through the morning and stirred sometime in the afternoon. Tito gave them the best food he had as well as rucksacks and other equipment. With their aid he marched Kalitkin and Harek, their hands still bound, to the ox-cart. Then the taverner set out with the two criminals in the back, back down the king’s highway to Wishbone Village.
 
‘Do you think he’ll do what you told him?’ Percy asked Gerald.
 
Gerald nodded. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘It’s important that everyone knows what’s happening. We couldn’t just let him throttle them.’
 
Percy looked wonderingly at Gerald. ‘Since when did you care about that kind of thing?’
 
Gerald didn’t seem sure. ‘Since I met these bastards,’ he said at last. ‘And I want to meet the ogres who are behind it all. The baby-eating bastards. If there’s war with them, I want to be in the frontline.’
 
‘What about finding the sorceress Photogeneia?’ Percy asked.
 
Gerald looked bleakly at him. ‘This is different,’ he said. ‘That was just an excuse for wandering, something to do. If we find her and she sends us back to Earth, what then? Back to school? Fuck that. Here we can do something worth doing. We can fight the ogres. And that’s what we’re going to do.’
 
‘I agree,’ said Norman. ‘I don’t really like fighting. It scares me, and it’s dangerous. But we’ve got to make these ogres pay.’
 
‘Yeah!’ said Brian excitedly, posing with his bastard sword. ‘We’ll kill the fuckers!’
 
‘More likely they’ll kill us,’ Percy pointed out. ‘Okay, I don’t especially want to go back to school. This place is miles better. But we ought to go home in the end. As for fighting ogres...’
 
‘Three to one, so you’ve got to do it,’ said Brian.
 
‘Percy!’ Norman said. ‘We can’t let the ogres do this! They’re eating babies.’
 
‘I know,’ said Percy. ‘But I don’t reckon it’s our business. We’ll be risking our lives for people we don’t even know.’
 
Gerald shrugged. ‘I know what you’re saying, Percy,’ he said. ‘Normally I’d agree with you. But what’s going on here... it’s sick. We ought to do our best to stop them.’
 
Percy sighed, and flung his arms out. ‘Well, I’m not going to wander this world on my own,’ he said. ‘If you lot are determined to get involved in a war, I suppose I’ll have to come with you. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
 
He grabbed his sword and a rucksack full of provisions. At least they’d travel in some style, foodwise. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘if we’re going.’
 
‘Where are we going, though?’ Norman asked as Percy led them down to the king’s highway. The others were weighed down with their own bags and their weapons.
 
‘This road leads to the Mountain Duchies,’ Percy said. ‘That’s where this war is going on. I reckon we follow it.’
 
‘Sounds like a plan,’ Gerald admitted. ‘Glad you’re with us, Percy.’
 
Percy looked at him morosely.
 
‘I’m not,’ he muttered.
 
They began to walk up the king’s highway.
 
A NEW ADVENTURE BEGINS NEXT WEEK

 
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