Meanwhile, back at the Imperial Palace, Jocosa was tied to a chair in a small room by the Dining Hall. Her broken ankle had been repaired not long before. Two guards, armed with spears and dart guns, stood either side of her. And in front stood Quelch, looking down on her.
He hadn’t spoken for fifteen minutes, but Jocosa was doing a good job of not appearing too intimidated. She just gave him a long, hard stare, as if daring him to do something.
In the end, he just turned on his heel and walked off. Jocosa kept staring at him, but she was concerned. What was he going to do?
She guessed correctly, two milliseconds before it happened. At the door, the Emperor whipped round to face her again, and his arms shot out. Jocosa blinked and turned her head to those two pink rubbery things streaking towards her. The ends of those tentacles found her neck. She struggled as they tightened.
The Emperor kept strangling her until she lost consciousness. He signalled to the guards, and they took her under the arms and stood, waiting for further instructions.
‘I think now would be a good time,’ he mused, ‘to see if that secret weapon of mine works. You two, put her in dungeon five with the Nightmare. We’ll take her back out tomorrow.’
The guards glanced at each other, then obliged, dragging Jocosa out of the room.
‘My feet are killing me.’
They had been walking all day. Warloc wasn’t looking too tired – no more tired than usual, anyway. Siobhan, however, wasn’t used to walking this far. And it was still raining, and her school shoes were rubbing at her heels. She wondered what shoes Warloc wore. She never had a good look. When she asked, he told her they were just standard Mooz skin shoes.
‘Can we stop?’ she asked. ‘I want to change into my trainers.’
‘Alright,’ Warloc said.
Siobhan took a seat on a wooden tree stump. The wood had probably once been brown, but now it was going a lemony yellow on the inside. She rooted in her school bag for her trainers. They were hiding under that bag that Dahlia had given them.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ she moaned.
‘At the river, or wherever the hell we’re going.’
‘It’s going to be a few more hours at least. Stop complaining.’
‘Stop complaining? I’ve never walked so far in my life!’
‘Well, that’s your fault.’
‘I’m sorry, but if you had cars, you’d understand. I love cars. They’re so much easier than walking.’
‘Your problem,’ Warloc told her as she tied up her trainers, ‘is that you’re used to living an easy life. Unfortunately it’s not like that here. Life is hard, and you’d better get used to it.’
‘Life is hard!’ Siobhan exclaimed. ‘Oh, it’s alright for you to say that, Mr Magic-Pants.’
‘You’ve got magic and dragons and people with waggly ears; we don’t have that sort of thing where I come from! You don’t know how lucky you are!’
Warloc sighed. ‘You should do more walking, and then you’d get used to it.’
‘Are those Mooz skin shoes blister proof?’
‘What?’ he said again.
‘Well, you find it so easy to walk everywhere; your shoes must be sooooooooo comfortable!’
‘I haven’t magically altered my shoes, if that’s what you mean.’
‘That’s not what I mean, I’m just saying, you try wearing a pair of ankle biters on YOUR feet sometime.’
‘Those shoes were shredding my heels. And maybe you shouldn’t crow about how easy it is for you to walk 300 miles when -’
Siobhan jumped up off the stump. The thing that had said ‘Oi,’ was poking its head out of the ground by her feet. It had been watching her the whole time. Whatever it was, it was tiny, and had a small screwed up brown face and wispy white hair. It peered at her over its bulbous nose.
‘Oi, oi, oi,’ it said.
Warloc stepped forward, holding up his staff. ‘Siobhan,’ he told her slowly. ‘Don’t be alarmed, it’s just a gnome.’
‘A gnome?’ she said in disbelief. She’d seen pictures of gnomes, all with red hats and fishing rods. This little homunculus thing was nothing like this. She watched it wriggle out of the dirt and stand up.
‘Oi, oi, oi, oi,’ it told her sternly.
Warloc nodded understandingly, but didn’t put down his staff.
‘Siobhan,’ he said. ‘You should know that there are some more gnomes standing behind you.’
‘About a hundred.’
‘Right,’ Siobhan said, getting up slowly and picking up her bag. She turned round. As soon as she clapped eyes on the herd of gnomes, they all started speaking at once.
‘Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi...’
Warloc stepped forward and waved his staff once, which frightened the gnomes into silence.
‘Let me speak to them,’ Warloc said. He cleared his throat. ‘Oi, oi, oi...’
‘Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi.’
‘Oi, oi.’ He paused. ‘Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi.’
Warloc nodded again. Siobhan looked at him in befuddlement.
‘They’re saying that a wild Mooz stampede has collapsed most of their tunnels. They’re all homeless.’
‘They can fix the damage within a few days,’ he continued, ‘but until then they need somewhere to stay so they don’t get eaten.’
‘OK... and what do they want us to do about it?’
‘We should help.’
‘Oh, come on, seriously?’
The gnomes were looking at her hopefully. One of them tugged at her trouser-leg. ‘Oi,’ it said. It started to lick her shoe.
‘We should try to help them, Siobhan. This Enchanted Woodland is home to some of the nicest and most friendly creatures you’re likely to meet, and the least we can do is help them now and then.’
‘But they’re gnomes!’
‘Help me gather some branches,’ Warloc said, stooping to pick some up.
Siobhan sighed and got on her knees. Gnomes crowded round her as she began sweeping through the bark on the ground.
‘What sort of branches?’ she asked, trying to ignore the two hundred eyes looking intently at her. She found some twigs.
‘Big sturdy ones.’
She growled, threw the twigs away, and got up. She couldn’t see any sturdy branches around her. She reached up on her toes to snap some off a nearby tree, but the gnomes swarmed over her feet, saying ‘Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!’
‘What, what? Warloc, make them stop!’
Warloc glanced over at Siobhan, trying to nudge away seven gnomes at once.
‘Don’t take living branches,’ he reprimanded. ‘There are things living in those trees; look for dead branches.’
Siobhan kicked some more bark out of the way. She found a stick, about 40cm long. She picked it up and waved it about.
‘I found one!’ she said proudly.
‘Well done. Now we need about thirty more...’
Siobhan grumbled. She crouched down again and hobbled forward close to the ground, looking.
Near the roots of a big electric blue tree, she found more fallen branches and sticks and things. She scooped them all up. She accidentally scooped up a few gnomes as well, so she put them down, and then carried the bundle of wood over to Warloc.
‘Thank you,’ Warloc said. He’d already constructed a few very small wood shelters that looked very much like something a certain melancholy donkey would have gone to live in. He took what Siobhan gave him and constructed another. The gnomes gathered round to watch. Warloc spoke in ‘Oi’s to them as he built, presumably showing them what to do. He sprinkled wet leaves over his shelters.
‘Now any big hungry animals won’t know they’re there,’ he explained to Siobhan.
The gnomes looked on appreciatively. They ‘Oi’ed their thanks, and Warloc stood up.
The gnome that had licked Siobhan’s trousers picked up one end of a stick, and motioned to another to get the other end. More gnomes followed suit and they started to build.
‘Look at that one,’ Warloc said, pointing. ‘An obvious leader.’
‘Fantastic. Can we go now?’
‘I suppose. They seem to know what they’re doing.’
Siobhan fetched her bag, picked a gnome off the front pocket, and nodded to Warloc. They started walking again.
‘First of all,’ she said. ‘I don’t understand why you call them gnomes. We use that word for little stumpy people as well.’
‘Must be a coincidence.’
‘Maybe someone came here and took gnomes back with them.’
‘No, not literally.’
‘Well, it’s an idea. Secondly, what the hell is a Mooz anyway?’
‘It’s an animal.’
‘Yes, I gathered that, but what kind of animal?’
‘You ask far too many questions,’ Warloc told her. As he walked, he twirled his staff like a baton.
‘Well, go on then, you ask me a question. Go on.’
‘I don’t want to. Could you walk a little faster?’
‘No. I’m like a lame duck in these shoes.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Oh, let’s not go over this again.’