It’s completely dark now. The fire that Herbe and Hern made for me has gone out, the bridgemen themselves have gone quiet, snoozing or hibernating or whatever it is they do.
And Florend’s still going.
I mentally prepared myself for this. By ‘mentally prepared’, I mean that I spent a few seconds imagining Florend saying scary things in the dark, visible only by the light glinting from his eyes and thought “It’ll be fine. I can deal with that.”
I’ve never been an optimist before, so I’m not sure where this idea came from. Maybe Hern’s cheery influence.
The light’s not glinting from Florend’s eyes though. The only thing I can see of him in the dark is his glistening tongue, as he talks and talks and talks.
It sloshes and gleams and makes horrible words, bizarre threats. He talks in a calm, even, almost pleasant manner and every syllable is a knife whittling away at my courage. I’ve got to give him credit, he knows what he’s doing.
He’s barely even repeated himself. There was a patch a few hours ago involving several promises of how he would extract my bone marrow, one after another but he’s only mortal, thankfully, and non-mythical (you hear about these mythical types wandering around. If one of them were threatening me there would be no repetition and everything would be all dramatic like “each threat was worse than the last” or “No more fearsome imprecation ever uttered by god or mortal.”)
In his litany of threats, there have been some doozies, there was one about removing the soles of my feet I’m not likely to forget, but it’s the simple relentlessness that’s getting to me.
I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.
The bridgemen were less impressed. They listened for a while, Hern occasionally making comments like “done that”, “Done that twice”, “did that to a Zezurian bird-bomb maker”, “that one’s impossible, the lips can’t stretch that far.” I think he was trying to be helpful, but it just made me scared of the bridgemen again. Thankfully, Hern got bored quite quickly and stopped.
I tried making conversation with them to tune Florend out.
“So, are you guys, um, elementals or something?” I said, a bit lamely. “You seem to be, like, aligned with nature. Plant-man and animal-man.”
I’ll pull out your veins and make a cat’s cradle, said Florend in the background.
“Elementals! The nerve of the squip!” Hern said huffily.
“Oh! I didn’t mean to be rude. Was that rude?”
I’ll fill one lung with dirt and watch you beg in words of mud.
“It’s a question of scale, sweetness,” Herbe explained. “It’s like asking a leviawyrm if it’s a moustache snake.”
“We’re fundamentals, girl, fundamentals,” Hern said. “In fact…”
“Don’t say it,” Herbe groaned.
I’ll hollow out your thighbone and play you like a flute.
“…we put the fun into fundamentals.”
“He said it,” Herbe sighed. “Child, let me explain, the bridgewomen before us were Skye and Sanity. After many decades of service, Skye became bored and started murdering travellers. Sanity, of course, knew better and did not indulge. We had to kill Skye to take her place. A new Skye rose. That is why the firmament is now green instead of blue. This is how beings such as us are fundamental. Do you see?”
I’ll stitch your ghost into your body and hang you up for the Shairks.
“Um… The sky used to be blue?”
“Indeed. And for the record, I am not male exactly. Mushrooms, for instance, have tens of thousands of genders.”
“Um…” I wasn’t really listening. The image of that flute threat was sticking with me and demanding attention. “Okay, sorry both, um…”
“Don’t worry about it, squip, I’ve forgotten already.”
I’ll cup my hands in your chest and give you a second heartbeat.
“Um…” I said again but couldn’t really keep the conversation going after that.
And so, the light faded slowly.
Herbe caused some roots to grow into the shape of a fire, Hern lit it and they went quiet and stopped moving. The night began. And all the while…
I’ll slide my fingers up your nose and tickle your brain.
I’ll unravel your innards and tie pretty bows
I’ll pluck your teeth half-out and shake your head like a maraca.
…all through the night, in the dark, those words glistening.
I don’t get any sleep.
Sluggishly, the sun rises. The light gradually reveals Florend, sitting cross-legged near me, doggish grin in place, still coming up with threats. He doesn’t even look tired. The caravan leaves tomorrow. I just have to put up with this for a day and a night. A whole day and another long night.
I’ll tailor your skin into pyjamas and put them back on you.
A day and a night.
I’ll cut your fingernails into threads and gently blow them dry
There’s no way.
“I can’t do it,” I say.
“What? Who?” Hern says, looking around. “Oh, it’s you, squip and – by my hairy backside! Is he still going on? That is intensely tedious.”
I’ll etch your name into your living bones, so people know who you were.
“I can’t last another day and a night, I’m sorry. I can’t,” I’m mumbling with fatigue.
“What are you apologising to me for?” Hern says with a shrug. “But I have an idea. Listen, do you trust me?”
I consider the giant, armoured, antlered supernatural being who, by his own admission, has done many of the terrible things Florend is only threatening.
“Um… sort of?” I say.
“Good enough,” Hern nods. “Now, will you allow me to get you out of this mess? Do you give me your permission?”
The question jerks Herbe into motion, his visor is looking alarmed.
“Little one! That would be a foolish!” He warns. “Hern, as much as I adore him, does not do sensible, subtle or safe. You have performed magnificently so far. Stupendously. You should be proud. Just a twinkle longer and your plan will be an unmitigated success.”
I stare at them. Blink slowly and stupidly.
Florend has stopped and is watching proceedings intently.
A day and a night.
“Hern, I trust you. I give you my permission.”
Herbe lowers his face into his palm.
“Fab,” Hern says, clamps a huge hand on my neck and, with a colossal heave, throws me.
I am hurled far out over the road, far across the high Muddle River bridge. I sail over its edge and out over the churning waters below. I hear Florend howl in protest.
“You’re welcome!” Hern calls after me. “Good luck, squip!”