The Perilous Realm Online, Part 14

  Book One: The Endless Road






Will thrashed and fought, but rough, powerful hands quickly stuffed him into what seemed to be a large canvas sack. He tumbled and kicked in the sudden dark.

“Let me out!” he screamed.

The only result was a blow to his stomach from an unseen fist that made him gasp for air.

“Shut your hole or there’s more of that,” a deep voice growled. Will felt himself picked up and hefted, he thought, over someone or something’s shoulder. Then his captor set off at a run that bounced and banged him around like a rag doll.

He was caught. Because of his own carelessness. And now he was being taken further away with each step from his friends. Panic threatened to take hold of him and he tried to calm himself, to concentrate and pay attention to what was happening, which wasn’t easy while being bounced around in the dark. He became aware of a rank, sickening stench, and realized that must be in the sewers beneath the city. Freya had told him the nightcrawlers hid down here.

Shade will find me, Will thought with a sudden hope, and then remembered the narrowness of the grate that he had been pulled through. Would the wolf even be able to fit through it? And what if his captors had sealed the grate behind them? If his friends couldn’t follow him through the drain, they would have to find another way down. If there wasanother way.

Thoughts like these went round and round in his head until he was brought back by the sound of a harsh, grating voice, then another.


“Anyone following?”


“They wouldn’t follow us here. Would they?”


There must be two captors. Will remembered his knife, and although the sack hampered his movements, he was able to reach the hilt. He was about to slide the blade from its sheath, and then he hesitated. Sooner or later, he assumed, they would open the sack to haul him out. Should he come at them then with the knife? Or should he try to cut his way out of the sack while they were still carrying him? If they caught him doing this, he would be almost helpless against them.


Before he could make up his mind which was the better plan, the running stopped. Will curled up just in time and hit the ground painfully on his side.


“I do believe it is your turn to carry this,” said the first voice.

“Done in already, are you?” said the second voice, which was softer and yet more menacing than the first.


“Not at all, it’s just that I carried the last two, if you remember.”


“Very well,” the second voice said after a pause, “but let’s find out what we’ve bagged first. See if it’s worth the effort.”


One of his captors began to work at the neck of the sack. When it was opened Will tried to shrink down into a ball, but it was no use. A huge hand groped in the sack and then seized his collar in an iron grip. He was hauled up and out like a kitten and tossed onto a cold stone floor.


Will looked up and choked back a cry of horror at the faces staring back at him – two bloated, hideous faces with tiny close-set eyes and turned-up snouts glistening with slime. The faces belonged to large, bloated man-like creatures that looked almost exactly alike, right down to the clothes they were wearing: patched rags that had apparently once been fine suits of dark maroon velvet. There was even some dirty lace still poking out of the cuffs of their sleeves, and tattered white wigs were perched on their massive heads. The only difference Will could see between his captors was that one was slightly less fat than the other and had a long, ugly scar running from his forehead to the corner of his mouth. This one lunged forward and prodded Will in the chest with a dirty finger. His breath reeked like rotting meat. Will’s stomach churned.


“Well look at this, Hodge,” the creature said, and the voice was the softer, more menacing one Will had heard from inside the sack. “This is…”


“A nice surprise,” the fatter creature interrupted, then licked its lips. “You just don’t see many of their young anymore. That stupid slimestone had its eyes open for once.”


Will sat up slowly and darted quick looks at the place his captors had brought him. It was a wide, pillared hall with a vaulted ceiling. What little light there was came from a tiny grating far above, like the one that he had been pulled through. Behind him was some sort of underground canal, filled with water which gave off plumes of foul-smelling steam. He was on a wedge-shaped pier that jutted out into the canal, so that he was surrounded on three sides by water, with his captors in front of him. They had trapped him here while they inspected him.


“You’d think they’d have learned to watch their whelps more closely,” the fatter of the two said, and Will turned his attention back to his captors.


“All the better for us that they haven’t,” the scarred one said with a wicked grin. He brought his glistening snout close and took an exploratory sniff. As Will recoiled he remembered something Rowen had said. In her list of the different kinds of Nightbane she had mentioned a kind of troll called hogmen. There was no doubt that these two fitted that title perfectly. But what had Rowen told him? They were not very clever, and … they ate people.


“A trifle on the lean side,” the scarred troll said with a frown. “You have to wonder what they’re being fed up there.”


“I concur, brother,” said the one called Hodge. “Shocking neglect. Those abovegrounders have no consideration for us. How are we to get by if they don’t fatten up their young? Times are hard, brother. Times are hard.”


“Well, never mind,” said the other hogman, with a nasty chuckle. “We’ll just have to watch out for all the little bones.”


Will shuddered: it was now absolutely clear what the intentions of these two were. He searched the tunnel for some way of escape, but saw nothing. The vaulted hall stretched off in all directions into darkness, without a doorway or staircase in sight.


“On the other hand, if he’s not quite pie-worthy,” the scarred hogman went on, “he can be used as bait for something better. But we should be moving on now. We are directly beneath …”


He pointed upward significantly. Hodge followed his finger, and then his mouth dropped.


“Dear me,” he wheezed. “I had not thought of it in all this excitement. But I do agree, it is time we hurried on.”


It must be the keep,Will realized. They’re afraid of whatever’s in the keep, like everyone else.


This could be his best, if not his only chance to escape. If he could get away from the hogmen here, his friends might still be nearby.Or he could at least find a way up into the keep, and the hogmen would not follow. But how to do it?


Then Rowen’s words returned to him, they aren’t very clever… Into his thoughts flashed the Loremaster’s tale of the boy who outwitted the ogre, and he knew what he had to do.


“Right then,” said Hodge, rubbing his hands together. “Back into your commodious travelling case, little morsel.”


Summoning up all his courage, Will forced himself to smile. He leapt to his feet and clapped his hands.


“This is wonderful,” he said, as brightly as he could.


The two hogmen gaped at him, then looked at each other with blank faces.


“If you are really Hodge,” Will said, and then turned to the scarred one, “then you must be…” He raised his hands in a gesture that said the answer was perfectly obvious.


“You’ve heard of us?” the scarred hogman said, his snout wrinkling.


“Who hasn’t?” Will said with a shrug. He swallowed hard, aware that his plan hung by a thread until he knew both of their names. “You mean to tell me you don’t know how famous the two of you are?”


Hodge, his mouth slack, started to shake his head, but recovered himself and snorted.


“Of course we know it,” he spluttered, and then cuffed his companion on the shoulder.


“You hear that, Flitch?” he said. “Tuck said we were coming up in the world. He told us things would be different once we got to Skald. No more rubbish heap in a ditch for us, he said. We’re going to have a sewer of our own, a whole entire sewer, and then the Marrowbone brothers will get the respect they deserve. That’s what he said, many a time when things looked bleak. You cannot deny that is what he said.”


“Tuck was right,” Flitch said coldly. “But don’t forget I was the one who finally got us here, when you would have stayed cowering under a pile of abovegrounder trash.”


“Oh, now, really, brother…”


“That is how it was, brother,” Flitch said in a low, menacing tone. “If  you remember.”


“Was it?” Hodge said, backing away. “Was it indeed? I must say I do not recall it quite that way, but it is possible …. I wouldn’t positively assert that my memory is at fault in this matter, but you are of course entitled to your—”


“It doesn’t matter,” Flitch muttered, and his small, piggy eyes peered coldly at Will. It was clear that he was not as entirely taken in as Hodge. Will knew that he would have to work quickly.


“The Marrowbone brothers at last,” he said with a bow. He had no idea who this Tuck was, but he had to proceed with his plan, and hope for the best.“Hodge and Flitch, in the … flesh. Just when I had given up hope of finding you.”


“Finding us for what?” Flitch asked.


Will put his hands on his hips.


“To challenge you, of course. To mortal combat.”


The trolls turned to look at each other, then broke into snorting, choking fits of laughter.


“I think our new … friend here is a little cracked,” Flitch sneered.


“Indeed, brother,” Hodge agreed, with a squeaky giggle. “Or perhaps the poor diet up there has withered his wits.”


“Not at all, gentlemen,” Will said with a smile. “When I heard that in this city lived the two most feared and respected of ….” He paused, considering that hogmen might have a more complimentary name for themselves, “…. of their kind, well, I had to come here and see for myself. And it wasn’t easy tracking you down, believe me. Just mentioning your names sent most people running.”


He paused. Hodge’s gaze was stunned and far away, but Flitch’s eyes had not left Will.


“And just who are you?” Flitch said slowly.


“Me?” Will said. “Why, my name is, of course, Sir William of the … Seven Mighty Companions. Tamer of the wolf and friend to the raven. I’ve crossed the Haunted Forest, the Swamp of No Return, and the Lake of … Swords to be here today.”


The hogmen exchanged dubious glances.


“Tamer of the …” Hodge muttered nervously, his eyes darting around.


“Yes, and here I am,” Will quickly went on, “even though my friends begged me not to look for you. They warned me that this time I would meet my match. They even made bets about which of you would be the bigger challenge. Some said Flitch was the one to worry about, but most said Hodge was the serious contender.”


“They said I was …” Hodge burst out, spittle flying from his lips. “They said I was the what?


He didn’t wait for an answer but cuffed his brother once more on the arm.


“Did you hear that, my dear Flitch?” he wheezed. “The serious contender.”


“I heard it,” Flitch said sourly. “That doesn’t mean it’s true, does it?”


“But what about our brother?” Hodge said, his brow wrinkling and his eyes beginning to glisten with tears. “What did they say about Tuck?”


“Well, of course they said … he was …” Will began, hoping desperately for inspiration.


“Tuck led us well,” Flitch interrupted, “until the garm-wolf got him. Let’s not forget who led us after, and finished the journey.”


Hodge sniffled and wiped his eyes.


“Yes, he led us well. Dear Tuck. So good and brave. He built that house of bricks with his own two hands. But it wasn’t strong enough …”


“Or he wasn’t smart enough,” Flitch muttered, not seeing the look of hate that flared in Hodge’s eyes.


All this time Will had been darting quick searching glances around the vault, and at last he saw what he had been hoping for. In the wall directly behind the hogmen there was a small round hole that appeared to be the mouth of a drainpipe. The hole would have been too high in the wall for him to reach, but below it was a heap of stones from a projecting buttress that had partly collapsed. If he could climb it and get into the drain, the hogmen might be too big to follow him. But first he had to distract them long enough to make a run for the wall.

“For myself,” he said quickly, “I had my own opinions about which of you was the one to beat, of course.”

“Did you,” Flitch said icily. “And which of us was the greater challenge, in your opinion?”

Will froze. Flitch’s scarred face came to within an inch of his own.The hogman’s foul breath stung his nostrils.

 “Which of us?” Flitch growled.

Will knew the true answer to that question. The watchful, merciless look in Fitch’s eyes told him. But he also knew it wasn’t the right answer, if he was going to survive.

“Hodge, of course,” Will said, as casually as he could.

Flitch’s eyes went cold and deadly, and for one dreadful instant Will thought he had made a fatal mistake. But then Hodge gave a squealing laugh and Flitch turned to him with a look of loathing.

“I knew it,” Hodge crowed, breaking into a clumsy, bobbing dance. “I always knew it. Oh, if only Mother could hear this.”

Flitch had regained control of his features, and now he gave a careless shrug.

“You think this scrap’s opinion is worth anything?” he snorted.

“He’s Sir William of the Seven Mighty Companions,” Hodge said, still capering with delight. “If you’ve never heard of them, brother, then may I say there are clearly a few things you’re not cognizant of. He came here to challenge us to mortal combat and he thinks I’m the one to beat. Note that, please. Someone who appreciates finesse over brute force. Someone who values brains in an opponent.”

“Brains?” Flitch retorted. “If you had any, you would be using them now, instead of bouncing around like a demented dumpling.”

“Envy does not become you, brother,” he chortled.

“You think I’m envious?” Flitch snarled. “Of you? I think you’ve forgotten what Mother said that day when she drove us out of the wallow. Do you remember that day?”

The gloating joy in Hodge’s eyes dimmed. His smile drooped at the edges.

“You do remember,” Flitch said with a fang-baring grin.

“She told us to go away and never come back,” Hodge muttered. “She told us we were big enough to catch our own meals. She told me …”

“She told you that you were a fool,” Flitch snapped. “I’m sure you haven’t forgotten that.”

Hodge’s lower lip began to quiver.

Watch over those fool brothers of yours, she said to me,” Flitch went on, his voice rising to a grating squeal that was apparently an imitation of Mother Marrowbone. “But especially Hodge. He doesn’t have a runt’s chance. There’s nothing but gristle between those ears. That’s what she said, and that’s what I promised to do.”

Hodge’s eyes blinked repeatedly. His breath was coming in short gusts.

“And that’s what I have been doing, all these years,” Flitch went on. “Are you cognizant of that? Watching over you. Keeping you out of harm’s way. Actually thinking for the both of us, instead of pretending to think. And where has it gotten me? Where have you gotten me?”

As Flitch’s rant went on, Hodge’s face had been darkening like a thundercloud. Suddenly, with a speed Will would never have suspected in him, his great lump of a fist lashed out and struck Flitch full in the face. The scarred hogman staggered back, grunting and wheezing.

No one was more shocked at this outcome than Hodge. He gaped in amazement at his own fist.

“That’s where it’s gotten you,” he giggled deliriously. “That’s where.”

As a triumph it was short-lived. In the next instant, with a snarl of rage, Flitch threw himself at his brother.

Will’s chance had come. As the hogmen toppled into a grunting, squealing mass of porcine fury he slipped past them, dashed across the vault, and leapt onto the heap of fallen stones. Frantically he scrambled up, clutching for handholds and banging his knees painfully against the edges of the uneven stones. He had not got very far when there was a cry of alarm from behind him, and then a furious howl. Will did not look back. He reached the top of the heap, jumped and caught the edge of the hole with his fingers. With a desperate effort he hauled himself up and into the drain.

It was too small for him to stand up, and so he shuffled at a crouch with his head down, thinking only of putting as much distance as he could between himself and the battling hogmen. He struggled on, and then became aware of a glimmer of light ahead of him. He halted, and looked up. The tunnel before him was lit by a ghostly ring of pale green flames.

The werefire.


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