“Now would be a good time,” said Harper, leaning over to whisper in Malone’s ear.
Malone grimaced, but nodded his reply. He looked over at the Brigadier, sitting a little way apart from the others, brooding, the way he had been for the whole of the five days since they'd left Tollbine with the precious bag of dried bluecap mushrooms tucked safely in Quill’s saddlebags. The others were concerned by this uncharacteristic behaviour. Their commander was never the most conversational person at the best of times. He liked to keep his own counsel, he almost never engaged in gossip and small talk. Since parting ways with Parcellius, though, he'd become even worse.
There was clearly something bothering him, and the men had been discussing it quietly among themselves every time they stopped on their journey back east. They were disturbed by it. The Brigadier was well liked by his men and they’d tried several times to get him to talk, without success. He would respond to every enquiry with a grunt or, at most, a monosyllabic answer that shut off the conversation, then return to his brooding. Malone had known him longer than any of the others, though, and had gained a close familiarity with him that enabled him to say things that none of the others could. That morning, as they’d been getting ready to set off, the men had gathered around and urged him to speak to him, their voices unusually serious. Malone hadn't needed much urging, though. He'd already made up his mind to do just that.
There hadn’t been the opportunity at the time, nor had there been when they'd stopped for their midday meal, but they'd now made camp for the night and the men were staring at him and nodding in the Brigadier’s direction. Malone gave their stew one last stir and spooned a generous serving into a pewter bowl, then took it over to where the Brigadier was sitting.
“Here you are, sir,” he said, placing the bowl and a spoon by his side. The Brigadier glanced down at the small pieces of chicken meat floating amongst the globs and pieces of chopped vegetable, gently steaming in the cool, evening air, then nodded and picked it up. Malone waited, but the Brigadier just spooned the meat into his mouth without a word.
Malone looked back at the men, who urged him on with hand gestures. He sighed again and tried to think of something to say, just to open the conversation. “I assume we’ll be passing through Radiant territory again.” The Brigadier gave no sign that he’d heard, though. Just kept spooning the stew into his mouth. He gave no indication that he was enjoying it either. It was as though eating was nothing more than a necessary task, like fuelling a machine. It could have been the ambrosia of the Gods or rancid, week old leftovers and he would have reacted just the same. It would keep his body going, and that was all that mattered.
“Because we need to get back as fast as possible and we made it last time,” pressed Malone. “Pretty much. Except for poor Smithy, of course.” Still no reply. The Brigadier was staring straight ahead, his forehead creased in a frown, his eyes on the hilly horizon where the sun, huge and red, was sinking into a layer of cloud. “Brigadier? Sir?”
Malone looked back at the men, whose unease was deepening, and an uncharacteristic anger began to steal over him. “Brigadier!” That did it, and the head snapped around to stare up at him. “What’s come over you? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he replied, looking ahead again, the stew forgotten. “Just thinking things over.”
Malone waited, but the Brigadier didn’t seem inclined to say more than that. “What things?” he asked. “What’s on your mind?”
“Just things. The road ahead. There’s dangerous territory between here and home.”
Malone didn’t buy it. This all started back with the archaeologist, he thought. Those books he found. No, the statue. The deformed woman with the half raised child in her arms. He’d given a start as if it meant something to him, and the books had added to it, but what?
He decided to sound him out. “Funny how those old books didn’t mention Radiants, isn’t it?”
The Brigadier looked at him again, and now there was the faintest of smiles on his lips as he realised the game was up. “You’re right, it is strange,” he replied. There was a long pause before he spoke again, but Malone waited patiently with great relief, knowing that he’d broken through the man’s shell. He’d speak now, tell what it was that had been bothering him.
When he did speak, though, it was such a change of subject that the batman thought at first that he was trying to fob him off again. “Did you know that, about three thousand years ago, the human race almost died out?”
“No I didn’t,” replied Malone, staring at him anxiously.
“There was a mighty civilisation back then...”
“The Hetin people.”
“Right. They accomplished things we can’t even dream of. It was a world of marvels and miracles. All the scientific marvels we have today, steam engines, the telegraph, guns and artillery, come from studying the relics they left behind, but that's barely scraping the surface of what they had. It's said that they walked on the moon and studied other worlds circling other stars.”
Malone had heard such things but thought it was nothing but fancy. He said nothing, though, not wanting to interrupt now that the Brigadier was finally talking.
“But then, for some reason, their population crashed. They died by the millions, their civilisation dissolved into chaos. Nobody knows why. We know there were wars, fought with weapons of unimaginable violence, but that was the result of the crash, not the cause. Some say they were afflicted by plague, others that their industries caused pollution that poisoned them. Nobody really knows. What is known is that barely a handful survived, maybe only a few thousand, and they were scattered across the earth in communities of only a couple of dozen at the most. We came so close to just dying out altogether. So very close.
“Those who survived had to start all over again. Back in my army days one of my Captains had a book of the Hetin people. A school book like that one Parcellius found. It had pictures of all kinds of animals, including people, with the animal’s name in big letters beside it, and beside each animal was a smaller animal of the same kind. Except for the frog, which had some kind of small fish beside it, and the butterfly which had some kind of worm with legs. They were the exceptions, though. The horse had a small horse beside it, the cat had a small cat...” He turned to look up at Malone. “And the woman had a very small human beside her. Only half her size.”
“A pigmy, like some eastern tribes...”
“No, this wasn’t a pigmy. And now that I think about it, I think the woman had bulges on her chest, under her dress, as if she had the same deformation as that small statue. There have been other clues. I travelled a lot back in my army days, I’ve seen a lot of strange things, and I’ve had plenty of time to think about them.”
“And you've come to a conclusion,” Malone guessed.
The Brigadier nodded. “It sounds crazy, maybe it is crazy. It's only now that I’m thinking of saying it out loud that I realise just how crazy it really is.” He took another spoonful of stew and lifted it to his mouth. Malone waited patiently.
“I think,” the Brigadier said at last, “that long ago we, and all animals, multiplied in a different way from how we do now. They didn’t adopt lower animals and raise them. I think each animal somehow produced a small animal of the same kind as itself, which then grew.” He stared at his batman to see how he would take that.
Malone was speechless for a long time. “So why is this suddenly bothering you now?” he asked.
“Because I never made the connection with the Radiants before. There were no Radiants in that book my Captain had, but I didn’t think anything of it. But there were none of them in the book Parcellius found either and that can’t be a coincidence. I’m now beginning to wonder...”
“If the reason they weren’t in the books is because there weren’t any Radiants back then,” finished Malone.
The Brigadier nodded. ”This mission is just about over,” he said. “Just take these mushrooms home, feed them to the Princess... If they don’t work I’m out of ideas. Either way, the King doesn’t need me any more. You’re right, we will be passing through Radiant territory again, and when we get there I won’t be going home with the men. There are answers to be found, and I think the Radiants might have them. I’m going to the nearest Radiant city.”
“You're doing what?” exclaimed Blane, jumping to his feet and almost spilling his bowl of stew. He put it down on a log to free his hands.
“There’s a matter I have to investigate. Something that might be important, or might not. We won't know until we look. Sherren Harle says there’s a Radiant territory a few days travel to the north.” Their guide looked up at the mention of his name. His yellow eyes fixed on the Brigadier for a few moments, then he went back to his bowl of stew, picking out the lumps of meat and popping them into his mouth with his fingers. “Malone and I will go there, take a look around and re-join you in Marboll...”
“If you ever get back to Marboll! Remember what happened last time? Poor Smithy...”
“I believe this is worth the risk. Besides, I don't really think there’s much danger. The trouble last time came from a deranged demon, and the Radiants themselves came to our rescue. They're not monsters, they’re not ogres hiding under bridges. Sherren will lead you back to the edge of Mekrol, then you'll be back in normal lands where you can follow roads the rest of the way home.”
“You still only know a few words of Pennygab!” pointed out Crane. “How will you communicate with people?”
In reply, the Brigadier spoke a string of words in the traders’ tongue, and the tracker stared in astonishment. “When did you learn that?” He exclaimed.
“I've been listening while you've been talking to Sherren and the villagers. My family has always been good with languages. The past couple of days I've been able to follow almost everything you’ve been saying.”
“We've only been talking on a very limited range of subjects!” replied Crane. “Suppose you have to talk about something else?”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to make ourselves understood.”
“Two of the men will go with you,” said Blane. “Harper and Spencer...”
“No. Every man will be needed to get the mushrooms back home. The two of us will have no trouble, I'm sure. I suggest you take the road through the Maybells. The stormy season is nearly here and there’s little cover in Wilterland.”
“That'll take longer...” began Quill, but Blane waved him to silence. “This is a bad idea!” he said. “To risk yourself like this... Your unfamiliarity with the local language makes you very vulnerable! Not everyone hereabouts speaks the traders’ tongue! And there'll be just the two of you with two horses! Suppose you parent bond with them?”
“We’ll change horses at every opportunity. No more arguing, Sergeant! You have your orders! In the morning you’ll go east and we’ll go north. Now finish your stew and get some rest.” The Brigadier then went to sit apart from the others and took his now almost empty can of brass polish from his kit bag.
“You should have talked him out of this!” Harper told Malone accusingly.
The batman stared in shocked betrayal. “It was you who wanted me to talk to him!” he cried. “If you hadn't pressured me into it he’d still be brooding his way back to Marboll! Don’t blame me for this!”
“Why in the names of Those Above does he want to go to a Radiant city?” asked Cotton.
Malone hurriedly filled them in on what the Brigadier had told him about the Hetin folk. “He wants to go on an archaeological field trip at a time like this?” exclaimed the former poacher.
“I think he wants to speak to the Radiants themselves.”
“They can't speak! They never speak! Nobody knows how they communicate! They'll end up adopting him, you too, and we’ll never see him again!”
“They can’t adopt Malone,” pointed out Quill. “He's not fully human yet.”
Everyone ignored the wizard. “Spoon, you tell him!” said Harper.
“It's Spoon-ER!” said the ranger. He leaned forward to refill his bowl with the last of the stew.
“Okay, Spoon-ER!” said Harper testily. “Tell him to speak to the Brigadier again!”
“Who cares what the Brigadier does? Let him go wandering off if he wants. Why should we care?”
The others stared at him. “You're just full of compassion, aren't you, Spoon? Sorry, Spoon-ER!”
“Shut it, Harper!”
“Watch the attitude, Spooner!” warned Blane. “You got first watch tonight. Spend the time thinking about how to get on with people.” Spooner glared at him, then pointedly ignored the others while he ate his stew.
“You okay, Malone?” asked Quill, moving to sit beside the batman.
“Fine. Not crazy about going to a Radiant city. Not crazy about leaving the rest of you, but okay. You really think they might adopt the Brigadier?”
“No, not really. I've never heard of them adopting someone against their will, and it would definitely be against his will. It would be several days before the parent bond forms, and he'd spend every second of that time trying to get away. It's not just his duty to the King that would motivate him. He wouldn't want to leave you. He wants to see you become fully human. He wants to see you married with children of your own.”
“Is that ever going to happen, though? It takes two people to raise a human. Unless he gets married... He's never going to get married! Can you imagine any woman getting him to settle down?”
“It doesn't always take two parents,” said the wizard, though. “There are documented cases of a single human adopting and raising a child. It takes longer, a lot longer... I mean, look at you! I've known you less than a year, but your face is noticeably less hairy than it was when I first saw you.”
“Definitely! And look at your hands. I remember you struggling to do up the buckles of your uniform. Now, you do them easily!”
“I've had more practice, that's all.”
“No, your fingers are longer and more nimble. Here, hold your hand out.” Malone did so, and the wizard put his own hand against it, palm to palm. “Look, almost identical. The fingers almost the same length, your nails are fully human. You've got fingerprints!”
“Yeah, I have!” The batman studied the pads of his fingertips, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Thanks, Quill!”
“How's your sense of smell?”
“The same, I think. I haven't noticed any change.”
“Let's see. Close your eyes.” Malone did so, and Quill ran the tip of his finger around the still damp inner surface of his bowl, wetting it with stew. Then he closed both hands into fists and held them out to the batman. “Okay, open your eyes. Now, which hand smells of stew?”
Malone moved his face closer to the wizard's hands, sniffed with his wet, dogs nose. “I can't smell any difference!” he said.
Quill opened his hands, showed him the smear of stew on the tip of his finger. “Even before we left Marboll, you'd have been able to smell it,” he said. “I think I can see pink skin starting to grow over your nose. That's definitely happened since we left Helberion!”
Malone grinned with delight. “Can you help it along?” he asked. “A small blessing?”
“Reputable wizards only use blessings in an emergency. Best to let it happen in its own good time. Don't worry, you'll get there.”
The Batman’s grin grew wider. “How long, do you think? How long before I can be declared?”
“Still years, I'm afraid...” The grin faded a little. “But anything worth having is worth waiting for.”
The grin returned. “You're right. Thanks, Quill!”
“Hey, Malone!” called across Harper. “Malone James! Sounds pretty good, eh?”
“Let's not get ahead of ourselves,” warned Spencer, though. “If anything happens to the Brigadier...”
“Nothing's going to happen to the Brigadier!” Malone suddenly looked alarmed and Harper glared at Spencer. “Nothing's going to happen to him,” he told the batman.
“But if it does, I'll be stuck like this forever! What are the chances I'll find someone else to adopt me?”
“If it comes to that, I'll adopt you.”
“You're a ranger, in service to the King! You can't leave until your term’s up, and your rank doesn't entitle you to a batman. We can't just serve together, we could be deployed apart.”
“As soon as my terms up, I'll retire and adopt you, but it won't come to that. Nothing's going to happening the Brigadier.”
Spooner listened to the conversation with his head lowered, so that no-one would see the sneer of contempt on his face. He imagined drawing his pistol and just shooting the others, one after the other. First the Brigadier, because his reflexes were the fastest. Then Quill, then Malone, because despite what the wizard had said the batman still had enough dog in him to make him dangerous. Those sharp teeth, those jaws, still so powerful! He imagined the looks of stunned stupidity on their faces as he blew away their faces, one after the other. How many of them would he be able to kill before the rest of them were able to react? They'd kill him, but by Those Above, the satisfaction he'd feel before that would be fantastic! If he discovered he had some kind of fatal disease, or if he was bitten by a venomous snake, that's how he'd go! In a blaze of glory and deep, deep satisfaction! He scraped the last of the stew from the bottom of his bowl and ate it with a grimace of distaste. Why did the bloody dog have to put globs in everything?
It was getting dark now, and the men started laying out their sleeping blankets. “You’re up, Spooner,” said Blane. “Wake me up in an hour.”
The ranger imagined himself sliding a knife across the Sergeant’s throat, imagined hot blood spurting out across his hands and face. “Sure thing, Sarge!” he called out cheerfully. “One hour.” He went to sit with his back against a tree while the others lay down, some of them still chatting. From across the clearing came the faint sound of the Brigadier polishing the brass fixtures of his uniform by the light of the camp fire and the silvery light of the rising full moon.
The next morning, Malone awoke to see Harper reviving the camp fire by putting new branches on the glowing embers. When it was fully alight he heated up some stream water in the cauldron and dropped in some oats to make porridge for breakfast. “I do the breakfast!” the batman protested sleepily.
“Just thought I'd try it without the globs for once,” the ranger replied. “Just so, when I die, I won't go back into the ground with the taste of the horrible, slimy things still in my mouth.”
“They're not slimy! They have dry skins! And without them to bulk it out the oats won't last as long.”
“We can buy more oats.” He fished around in his backpack and produced a small packet of brown powder which he poured into the cauldron. “Got this is the last village. Crane says it’s a local herb, dried and powdered. Supposed to make it taste like beefsteak.”
Malone went over to the Brigadier and found him already awake, brushing dried mud from the hems of his trousers. “Needs a good wash and a press, and there are some tears that need sewing up,” he muttered as he scrubbed with a coconut hair brush.
“Yes, sir. I'll get right on it when we stop tonight.”
The Brigadier looked up with a faint smile. “I wasn't suggesting you do it. We don’t have the equipment here. I was just wishing we could stop by a place with some decent laundry facilities. It doesn't do for an officer of the Helberion army, even a retired officer, to be seen in such a tatty uniform.”
“It is supposed to be my job, sir. I'm your batman, that's what I do. I see to your needs. I'll see what I can do tonight, Sir.”
“Very well, Malone, but don’t go to too much trouble. No-one expects miracles from you out here in the wilds.”
“While we’re on the subject, Sir, I'm supposed to polish your brass for you too.”
“Some things a man does for himself, Malone. Like trimming my beard. Now go get me some breakfast. I'm hungry.”
The porridge did indeed taste like beefsteak, and the men devoured it with relish. “Got any more of that powder, Harp?” asked Spencer, staring at his empty bowl regretfully.
“No, sorry. I'm getting more at the next village, though. A lot more! And when I retire from the army I'm going to import the stuff! Crate it into Helberion by the wagonload! Reckon I could really clean up!”
“What's it called?”
They all looked at Crane, who looked suddenly worried. “I don’t know!” he admitted. “This woman just told me to try it! I only took it to be polite! I never thought to ask what it was called!”
Everyone groaned and Spencer threw his bowl at him. “Ask at the next village!” said Harper. “We've got to get more! Lots more! And more oats!” He glared at Malone. “And no globs!”
Blane went over to stand next to the Brigadier, who was pulling his trousers back on. Despite his earlier words, his uniform still looked almost new, as if he’d only picked it up from the supply store a few days before. “Are you still set on visiting a Radiant city?” the Sergeant asked.
“I am. I think I have to. I sense that there’s something important here, something we need to know.”
“I had hoped that a new day might have led to a change of heart.”
“I thought so as well, the first night after leaving Tollbine, and every night since, but every morning I awake with the same questions on my mind, questions that need to be answered. You'll be okay without me, Tom. Just a long hike back home.”
“It's not myself I'm worried for. Let someone else do it. When we get back home, the King can send a properly equipped expedition. Experts on the Hetin folk, Radiant experts.”
“There are no Radiant experts. No-one knows more about them than we do. That's part of the problem. They rule the planet, we humans are like mice in a farmer’s field. We need to know more about them.”
“That may be so, but it doesn’t have to be you who does it. Come back with us, Brigadier. We need you.”
The Brigadier smiled. “Not for this, not just to carry a few mushrooms back home. Take good care of the men, Tom. I'll see you back in Marboll.”
“I hope so. I really hope so.”
Malone had been saddling up the horses, and he led his and the Brigadier’s mounts over to where they were standing. “Ready to go, Sir,” he said unhappily.
“Very good, Malone.” The Brigadier adjusted his uniform and strapped on his pistol and sword. “Well, this is it, Bill. Now we go our separate ways.”
Blane nodded. “Good luck, Sir.”
“And to you, Sergeant.” The Brigadier held out his hand and the Sergeant took it. “No detours, no side missions. If you come across a damsel in distress being chased by bandits, you just keep on going. The only damsel in distress you need to worry about is the one back in the palace.”
Blane nodded. “No lingering in the Radiant city,” he replied. “You find out whatever it is you need to know, then get out of there. When you return to Marboll, I want you to be walking, not floating.”
The Brigadier smiled and climbed into the saddle. Beside him, Malone did the same. “Let's go, Malone.”
The others watched as the two men rode their horses out of the camp. Malone looked back as they headed into the surrounding trees, as if he was wondering whether he’d ever see any of them again. The Brigadier, in contrast, kept his gaze straight ahead. A couple of minutes later they had passed out of sight.
The men stood in silence for a few moments, contemplating the fact that their force had been diminished even further. Thirteen people had set off from Marboll. Now there were only seven of them left. They glanced at each other, each one of them counting only six companions, and then they looked around at the deep, dark forest that surrounded them. All of a sudden they felt very far from home.
“All right, men,” said Blane. “Let's go. We've got a princess to save.” His words snapped the others out of their gloom, and they set about readying themselves to leave.