I strain my ears, trying to hear whatever it is that Vrenega can hear. At first, I can’t detect anything but the rustling of leaves in the trees. But then there’s a sudden shout, and two warriors are charging towards us – a big dude and an equally big girl, with broad blue stripes across their faces and broadswords held aloft. I panic, leap off the bench and throw my “Uzi” at them. It sails harmlessly between them.
Luckily, Vrenega is less useless. She swings her battle axe like a pro, fighting the female warrior while I stand there and dither. The male warrior approaches me with a friendly grin on his blue-painted face. He points his sword at me and, very gently, boops me in the belly with it.
“Am I dead?” I ask, aghast.
Presumably he takes pity on me, because he says “Nah, just injured. That means you’re out for fifteen minutes.”
I glance over at Vrenega and the other warrior, who have stopped fighting and are now doing rock-paper-scissors to decide who won. Apparently Vrenega won (scissors beats paper) and the warriors retreat. Vrenega turns back to me, all covered in glory, and I do my best to look defiant.
“I’m injured,” I say. “I can’t play for fifteen minutes, so I guess you just carry on without me, right?”
Vrenega purses her lips, looking like she’s weighing up the pros and cons of ditching me. Wanting to know exactly how shitty Ethan’s new girlfriend is, I decide to make things easy for her.
“I know the way back, so don’t feel like you have to stick around. And I found your fucking spell scroll too.” I take it out of my bag and literally throw it at her. “Go enchant the dragon, get the jewel, find Ethan and have a laugh at how rubbish I am at LARPing. Seriously, have fun.”
Weirdly, I do feel like I’ve been injured. I think of Ethan and Vrenega, cozied up together and laughing at me, and there’s an actual pain in my chest.
She doesn’t leave. Instead, she rummages in her pack and pulls out a roll of bandages.
“Where are you wounded?” she asks, brisk as a boarding school matron.
“In the gut.”
“OK. I’m guessing you don’t want to mess your dress up, so we’ll say it’s your arm instead. Roll your sleeve up.”
I’m reluctant to do as she says because I have firmly decided that I hate her. I’d also quite like to be alone so I can have a quick cry. But she’s not going anywhere, so I figure I may as well play along and just wait for this to be over. I sit down on the nearest bench and bunch up the floaty material of my left sleeve.
It turns out that Vrenega is some kind of healer. She doesn’t just bandage the imaginary wound – she cleans it with a soft cloth and something from a black bottle, which I strongly suspect is water. Then she takes cotton wool from a paper bag labelled “moon moss” and places a wad of it in the crook of my elbow (“to soak up the blood” she says), before bandaging it in place. The whole time, she has a look of intense concentration on her face, like I might actually bleed out if she doesn’t do this properly. By the time she’s almost finished with the bandages, I’m starting to suspect that something’s up. She keeps sniffing, and her eyes have gone all glossy. I could ignore it, I guess, but I’m bad at ignoring things.
“What’s the matter with you? I’m the one who’s injured here.”
“When you said Ethan likes any girl who’s nice to him, did you mean it?”
“Yeah. So what? That’s just the way he is.”
I watch, mildly horrified, as a tear spills from Vrenega’s eye and rolls down her cheek, leaving a trail in her green face paint.
“Fan-bloody-tastic,” she says. “The only guy I’ve ever been with, the only guy I’ve ever wanted to be with, and to him I’m just … I could’ve been anyone! Anyone who smiled and said hi.”
The only guy she ever wanted to be with … huh. I get the sense of something clicking into place.
“It was you, wasn’t it? Your friend who thought she was asexual but then met the right guy and realised she wasn’t.”
Vrenega nods. Despite the crying, she’s still tending my imaginary wound – fastening the bandage in place with a safety pin. I’m a little concerned she’s going to get distracted and stick me with it.
“I’m sorry I said all that stuff. I know ace people and aro people exist. And for all I know, you’re one of them-”
“And I’m being a total cliché, telling you it’s a phase. And being a scary, jealous girlfriend as well.”
“You are scary. Especially with the axe.”
“Ugh. I swear, I’m not usually like this with boys. I knew Ethan for like a year before I even thought about him that way.”
Hm. Something else clicks into place.
“You know, if you don’t get sexually attracted to people without, like, an emotional connection … err, some people call that demisexual.”
“Yeah, I heard of that. But people on the internet say it’s just a bunch of straight girls trying to be special snowflakes.”
“People on the internet also say Bill Gates puts microchips in Covid vaccines.” This startles a watery laugh out of her. “I mean, obviously you don’t have to use the label if you don’t want to, but why would you care what some judgemental randoms think of it? You’re a fucking goblin warrior queen.”
“Some warrior queen. Sat here boo-hooing over … I don’t even know what.”
She swipes a tear off her cheek and pulls a compact mirror out of her pack to check her make-up.
“We can talk about this stuff, if you want,” I offer. I may be still a teenager and pretty clueless and surely not her favourite person, but who else has she got? A boyfriend who’s built differently, and an internet full of trolls.
“Yeah, that’d be cool.” She stands up and swings her axe over her shoulder. “Not right now though. We’ve got a dragon to deal with.”
The dragon is a twelve-year-old boy. He is dressed all in green, with a pretty impressive tail and wings, but he is still a twelve-year-old boy. He sits at the base of an oak tree, with treasure spread out in front of him. Most of the treasure looks like scrunched up tin foil, but somewhere in that shiny hoard is the sacred jewel of Snakeshire.
“Where are his parents?” I whisper to Vrenega, as we hide behind a thick tree trunk.
“Slaughtered,” Vrenega whispers back. “He’s the last dragon left, or so the legend says.”
I’m starting to like how seriously she takes this. Ethan says it’s one of the things he loves about her – that she throws her whole heart into everything she does. I hope he tells her stuff like that. He might have started liking her because she was girl-shaped and nice to him, but if he loves her (and I’m pretty sure he does) it’s because of everything she is.
“Do you have the spell scroll?”
Vrenega pulls it out of her pack and hands it to me. “Here, you can do it.”
“You sure? What if I mess it up?”
The steel in her voice cuts off any argument I might have made. At the same moment, we both step out from behind the tree and stride towards the dragon. I hastily unfurl the scroll and read aloud,
“Dragon leave your treasure
To the waking world
And fall into a slumber
With your great wings furled”
Lowering the scroll, I see the kid on his feet, claws raised. But then he yawns hugely, sinks down to the forest floor, and curls up like a big green cat. I put a hand to my heart and gesture frantically at Vrenega, wanting her to appreciate how adorable this dragon is. But she’s all business, already on her knees and sifting through the huge puddle of treasure. I join her.
There’s plenty of other stuff amongst the tin foil. Big, plastic jewels the size of my palm. A cardboard crown. But no sign of the sacred jewel of Snakeshire, which – according to legend – looks like a small, purple egg.
The dragon stirs. Shit, I didn’t know sleeping spells wore off so quickly. I dig frantically through the treasure, scattering tin foil everywhere. But it’s no good. The dragon rises with a roar. And though the dragon’s voice hasn’t broken yet and it’s quite a high-pitched roar, it’s still clear that Vrenega and I are in serious trouble.
“Err … Dragonleaveyourtreasure” I begin, but Vrenega cuts me off.
“I’ve got the jewel! Run!”
I scramble to my feet, turn and run, with Vrenega beside me and the dragon behind me, roaring for all he’s worth.
“We’re close to camp,” Vrenega pants. “Don’t stop running!”
I don’t. I didn’t come this far to be eaten by such a tiny dragon. I can’t even slow down, because he’s right behind us the whole time. Why doesn’t his tail slow him down?
The footpath veers off to the left and suddenly our team’s camp (a small, blue gazebo) is in view. Our bard is standing beside it, having a vape. Under the gazebo, Ethan – aka Alazar Birch – is sitting, looking sorry for himself. His head is bandaged, and the bandages are generously decorated with fake blood. Good to know I’m not the only one who got injured.
Behind us, the dragon gives another roar. He’s getting hoarse now, and sounds a tiny bit scary. I shriek, because he’s earned it, and grab Vrenega by the arm. We hurtle towards camp and basically crash into Alazar, knocking him onto his back and falling together in a tangle. The dragon finally stops roaring.
The three of us disentangle ourselves. “We’ve returned, my love,” says Vrenega, when there’s enough breath in her lungs for speaking.
“I noticed,” says Alazar, with a grin. “And you brought me a pet dragon too. How thoughtful.”
“But where’s the jewel?” I say, noticing that Vrenega is only holding the cardboard crown.
Her little bud of a mouth blooms into a wide smile as she plucks a small, purple, egg-shaped jewel from the crown. With one hand, she tosses the jewel to Alazar. With the other, she puts the crown on my head. Damn, she’s actually kind of cool.
The bard congratulates us but gets distracted by the dragon, who is demanding a snack. I think the dragon is the bard’s son.
Maybe a victorious quest resets things, or maybe it’s the sight of a dragon eating a cereal bar that does it. But our other identities seem to fall away for a moment, and we are Gwen and Ethan and Fliss. It’s something new, but screw it – I can handle new. So can Ethan. So can Fliss.
Thanks for reading my lovelies! I hope you enjoyed catching up with Gwen and her (mis)adventures. Happy Ace Week and Happy Halloween for tomorrow!