Rumo and his miraculous.., p.12
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.12

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘Surely you remember your old minister of war?’

  Yes, Kromek remembered him. At the time he’d thought him a lily-livered coward. He’d been itching to brave a shower of boiling tar for his prince’s sake – he would sooner have died than turn tail. The retreat from Florinth had been the worst humiliation he’d ever suffered.

  ‘You cowardly swine! We could have trounced those Florinthian bastards with ease.’

  Smyke’s little excursion into the past didn’t seem to be having the desired effect. ‘All right, let’s forget about the old days. We need some food, water and clothing – and, let’s say, a hundred pyras to see us on our way. I bet you can’t kill my Wolperting with that crossbow of yours.’

  Kromek thought hard.

  ‘What do I get in return?’

  ‘Your life will be spared.’

  ‘No, I mean, what do I get if I win the bet?’

  ‘You can’t win.’

  ‘You’re crazy, both of you! Get out of here!’ The Bluddum was looking rather disconcerted again.

  ‘Go on, Kromek Toomah, shoot him!’ Smyke said sharply.

  Rumo was disconcerted too. Was Smyke subjecting him to another test? He’d never seen how a mechanical weapon worked. Up to now the fastest thing he’d ever had to avoid was a Demonocle’s fist.

  Kromek mechanically did as he was told. The twin triggers clicked twice, releasing the gut bowstrings and loosing off both bolts simultaneously. A whirring noise filled the air. As if guided by invisible wires, the projectiles came spinning towards the Wolperting. He could see particles of dust spiralling along in their wake.

  The whirring noise expanded in Rumo’s ears, slowing and deepening until it became a low, resonant hum. He knew what this portended. It was the moment of supreme danger, when his physical and mental processes speeded up in an almost miraculous way. He had first experienced this phenomenon on the plateau on Roaming Rock, when he ripped off the Demonocle’s head. All at once he had ample time to debate how to react. There were three possibilities. He could simply bend his head aside, which would probably make the most nonchalant impression. Or he could crouch down and let the bolts fly over him – that would look athletic. Or he could bend from the waist, paws on hips, and make a thoroughly daredevil impression. He simply couldn’t decide.

  He was still pondering the problem when a fly went buzzing across the bolts’ flight path. It just missed the one on the left but was sucked into its slipstream. This was bad luck on the insect, Rumo sympathetically noted, because it lost both its wings to the spinning feathers and fell to the floor, badly injured, instead of dying a swift and merciful death.

  The bolts were now only inches away – Rumo could already make out the weaponsmith’s trademark on their copper tips. At that moment he heard a movement behind him. It was Zorda, who had recovered his senses and was drawing a knife from the sheath strapped to his leg beneath his trousers. The Bluddum was doing his utmost not to make a noise – he lay quite still with his head on the table top and was extracting the blade from its sheath with great deliberation – but to Rumo’s ears it sounded like an executioner’s axe being whetted on a grindstone.

  Under these circumstances Rumo decided on a fourth method of evasion. Casually propping one fist on his hip, he inclined the upper part of his body a little to one side to avoid both crossbow bolts. At the same time he raised his other paw and brushed the feathers of one of them – only gently, but hard enough to change its direction considerably. The other bolt he intended to pluck out of the air. Just as he reached for it he was struck by a painful realisation: he might as well have planted his paw on a red-hot stove. The friction occasioned by the braking process scorched his palm and the shaft’s tiny reed fibres tore away shreds of skin, but he didn’t let go; he tightened his grip and brought the spinning bolt to a standstill. Meanwhile the second bolt sped on, transfixed the table top on which Zorda’s head was resting and nailed the hand holding the haft of the dagger to his leg. Too shocked to utter a sound, the Bluddum passed out once more. Rumo clenched his teeth and stood there gripping the arrow with a thin trickle of blood seeping between his fingers.

  Smyke gave a low, admiring whistle.

  And Kromek Toomah started barking again.

  Rumo and Smyke left the taproom and made their way outside. Smyke tossed a half-gnawed pork chop over his shoulder and filled his lungs with tobacco smoke. Although there hadn’t been any phogars in the inn, just a box of cheap South Zamonian cheroots, they were quite good enough to satisfy him after years of abstinence. His eyelids were heavy with wine, but his heart was lighter than it had been for a long time. Having drained a jug of Kromek Toomah’s red wine without drawing breath, he was feeling liberated – free at last from the memories and fears that had haunted him ever since Roaming Rock. He was truly back in civilisation.

  ‘I’m quicker than other creatures,’ said Rumo. He was still marvelling at his own achievement.

  ‘Much quicker,’ said Smyke, blowing a smoke ring. ‘You’re a Wolperting.’

  Rumo tugged at his new clothes. He was wearing Zorilla’s scuffed leather pants, which ended just below his knees, and a Troll-fur waistcoat taken from Kromek Toomah. Both garments reeked of Bluddum.

  ‘Do I really have to wear these?’ he asked Smyke.

  Smyke was weighing a purse in one of his predatory little hands. He shook it, listening entranced to its jingling contents.

  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you do.’

  ‘One thing struck me as odd,’ said Rumo as they left The Glass Man Tavern and set off in an easterly direction. ‘Really? What?’

  ‘That card game had the same name as me.’

  ‘Yes.’ Smyke grinned. ‘Funny, isn’t it?’

  The Nocturnomath

  That night they camped in a small wood that struck them as safe – at least, Rumo picked up no alarming signals. They lit a fire, which meant that Rumo, under Smyke’s instructions, gathered some dry grass, bark and twigs, and knocked two specially selected stones together until sparks flew from them and ignited the kindling.

  ‘That’s something else I’ve taught you,’ said Smyke. He was lounging on a soft bed of maple leaves and sampling a skin of red wine appropriated from The Glass Man. Rumo had sniffed it and declined with thanks, so Smyke had it all to himself. ‘You’re clever with your hands. People of my age are past making fires. In the larger cities, public braziers tended by Glimmerdwarfs glow on every street corner. You pay them a copper for a blazing torch and take it home with you. That’s the way it ought to be.’

  A swarm of Elf Wasps circled the fire, Crackchafers buzzed round Smyke’s head, menacing with their tiny pincers, and Will-o’-the-Wisps darted giggling through the rising smoke. Springtime in Zamonia had unleashed hordes of insects. Death-defying Dust Moths plunged into the flames and exploded with a hiss. Smyke grimaced with distaste.

  ‘That’s what I dislike most about the great outdoors: it belongs to the insects. Well, they’re welcome to it. Insects can have the countryside as long as we can have the cities. We steer clear of the great outdoors and insects steer clear of the cities – that would be a fair division. What business has a spider in a bedroom? As much as we have in this confounded wood.’

  Rumo was busy blowing the fire as instructed by Smyke. It fascinated him to see how fast the flames took hold.

  ‘In the civilised world we kill insects when we come across them,’ Smyke went on plaintively. ‘Insects do the same to us, but in a more subtle way. In this district there are said to be Mummy Ticks whose bite doesn’t simply kill you, it makes you undead, can you imagine that? No bigger than a grain of sand, they lurk in trees for years and land on your head if you’re unwise enough to sit down beneath them. Then they burrow into your brain and lay their eggs there. You don’t even notice it, but when the eggs hatch your head goes mouldy inside and you turn into a walking corpse that lives on moths.’

  Rumo looked up at the leafy canopy overhead and ruffled his fur.

  Smy
ke’s gaze brightened when he looked back at the flames. He was thinking of big-city fires, of skyscrapers as high as the Gloomberg Mountains, of streets lined with busy shops, of inns and taverns. He knew of a bar in Grailsund where … A branch exploded in the fire and brought him down to earth again.

  ‘I wish we had a little Swamp Hog we could roast.’ He sighed. ‘I know an excellent recipe for Swamp Hog in which caraway seeds play a sensational part. Did you know that caraway seeds go perfectly with resinous cheese?’

  Rumo wished Smyke would give his monologues a rest, if only for a moment. He had scented something and he wanted to monitor the wood without being distracted by the Shark Grub’s chatter. He shut his eyes and concentrated hard. The results gleaned by his nose and ears were contradictory and confusing. He could smell a living creature hidden in the undergrowth some twenty paces away. Its heartbeat, which he could hear, was slow and regular, from which he deduced that no attack was to be feared – unless the creature was so self-assured that not even the imminence of combat made its pulses race. But he could also hear another four organs at work: an incessant crunching, crackling sound. Rumo had never encountered anyone whose insides produced such noises.

  ‘Tomorrow we’ll go hunting,’ Smyke ordained. ‘It’s time you got over your aversion – it’s against your nature. I’ll teach you how to hunt. We may even find a Swamp Hog, the ground is marshy enough for—’

  ‘There’s something over there in the undergrowth,’ Rumo whispered. ‘Some creature or creatures. I can hear puzzling noises.’

  ‘Puzzling noises?’ Smyke lowered his voice too. ‘What sort of noises?’

  ‘Crunches and crackles. They could be bodily organs functioning, but I’ve never heard anything like them before. There seem to be four of them.’

  ‘Kackertratts have several livers, I believe,’ whispered Smyke, ‘but they only operate in packs.’ He deplored his lack of general knowledge, because he was far from sure of either assertion.

  Two lights shone through the undergrowth. They were circular, yellowish and not particularly bright, but they appeared so suddenly that Rumo reared up into his attack stance and Smyke reached for a thin branch. Then the lights began to move towards them. The bushes parted, and out of the undergrowth stepped a wizened little creature with a disproportionately large head on its shoulders. The lights turned out to be its big, round, luminous eyes, and the movements of this peculiar apparition were so clumsy and ill coordinated that Rumo instinctively relaxed.

  ‘I trust I didn’t startle you, gentlemen,’ the nocturnal visitor said in a high-pitched, nasal, almost arrogant voice. ‘But I saw the fire and since I was passing through a relatively uninhabited district where campfires are conspicuous by reason of their statistical rarity, my curiosity was aroused and I took the liberty of coming closer. I myself would never have dared to light a fire in this part of the world, given its scientifically proven incidence of Werewolves and Lunawraiths. But a little defensive community like yours can afford to do so, eh?’

  ‘A Nocturnomath,’ thought Smyke.

  ‘Yes, you’re right, I’m a Nocturnomath – in other words, gentlemen, harmless. I’m dangerous only on the mental plane, so you’d better not cross swords with me when it comes to intellectual matters, ha ha! Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Kolibri, Professor Ostafan Kolibri.’

  Smyke was impressed by the fearless way this frail little gnome had walked up to him and Rumo. He was evidently a mind-reader and bore a faint resemblance to the professor from whom Smyke had acquired his knowledge of Demonocles’ tongues in Fort Una. He had the same glowing eyes, the same puny body, the same outsize head. But something about him was different.

  ‘You’re welcome,’ said Smyke. ‘We should be glad to share our campfire with any well-disposed wayfarer.’

  The Atlantean Hiker’s Code laid it down that this was the traditional sentence to be recited on such occasions. Originally formulated by some Natifftoffian politicians whose hobby was hiking, it signalised courtesy and hospitality. But it also conveyed a veiled threat, being a clear intimation that the hosts would defend themselves vigorously if attacked by their guest or guests. There was no legal obligation to use this flowery phrase, but it was widely recognised and taught in many Zamonian schools. The correct response to it ran: ‘I thank you for your offer of hospitality and promise not to take undue advantage of it.’

  ‘I thank you for your offer of hospitality and promise not to take undue advantage of it,’ Ostafan Kolibri replied and added, ‘I feel I should mention that I’m in possession of some Midgardian biltong sausages which, in return for your hospitality, I should be happy to share with you, campfire-owning gentlemen. Would that be convenient?’

  The Nocturnomaths’ trademark was a certain linguistic eccentricity believed by many scientists to be a form of disease stemming from the immense output of words generated by their multiple brains. Kolibri held up a cloth bag from which he extracted a long, thin sausage.

  ‘It would indeed be convenient!’ Smyke exclaimed. Delightedly, he beckoned their nocturnal visitor closer.

  Although Rumo had abandoned his hostile stance, he remained alert and eyed Kolibri suspiciously.

  Once the newcomer’s contribution had been silently consumed beside the crackling campfire (Smyke got the biggest share, the Nocturnomath ate very little and Rumo abstained altogether), Smyke endeavoured to strike up a civilised conversation.

  ‘May one enquire where your travels are taking you?’ he asked.

  ‘I’m on my way to Murkholm.’

  Smyke stared at Kolibri in astonishment.

  ‘Murkholm,’ Kolibri went on, ‘lies north of Florinth on the coast of West Zam—’

  ‘I know,’ Smyke broke in. ‘I was only wondering. I mean, are you going there voluntarily?’

  The Nocturnomath laughed. ‘I’m familiar with the old saying about Murkholm. If you go to Murkholm …’

  ‘… don’t bring any murk home!’ Smyke amplified. They both laughed politely. Rumo stared uncomprehendingly at the fire.

  ‘I’ve only heard the usual rumours,’ Smyke went on. ‘How the city is eternally blanketed in fog, how people keep disappearing there – that sort of thing.’

  ‘My own state of knowledge is little better. I’m going there to conduct some scientific experiments. I may be able to substitute proven facts for some of the wilder stories and theories about the place.’

  ‘Stories? What stories?’

  ‘Are you really interested?’

  ‘Stories always interest me.’

  ‘Are you acquainted with the legend of Netherworld?’

  ‘Netherworld?’ Smyke said enquiringly.

  Rumo pricked up his ears too.

  ‘The world beneath the world. The Kingdom of Evil, et cetera.’ Kolibri waggled his bony fingers in the air.

  ‘I’ve heard the odd rumour,’ said Smyke. Superstitious nonsense – barrack-room gossip.’

  ‘Shall I?’ asked Kolibri.

  ‘Please do!’ Smyke replied.

  Murkholm

  The professor threw a dry log on the fire. ‘For many centuries now, things have been happening in Zamonia for which there’s no satisfactory explanation. Whenever they do, folk start muttering about Netherworld. Where do Demerara Dragons hail from? Netherworld! Where did the inhabitants of Nairland disappear to? Netherworld! Where did the Nurns come from? Netherworld! Where did General Ticktock and his Copper Killers escape to? Netherworld!’

  Rumo stiffened. Did this dwarf know about General Ticktock?

  ‘So what’s the answer?’ asked Smyke. ‘Is there a genuine connection?’

  ‘That’s the question! People have always had a tendency to divide everything into two categories: above and below, light and dark, good and evil. Scientists, on the other hand, strive to illuminate and define the areas between them. Massed in Netherworld, so it’s said, are the forces that thrust Zamonia to the surface – the scum that will one day rise and take over the whole continen
t. Theoretically, Netherworld is a gigantic cave system running beneath Zamonia, a world of darkness filled with dangerous and demonic life forms. There are many legends concerning Netherworld, one of them being that Murkholm is the secret entrance to it.’

  ‘Ha ha,’ said Smyke.

  ‘Yes, ha ha,’ said the professor. ‘An incorrigible old wives’ tale. On the other hand what about all the people who keep disappearing in the neighbourhood of Murkholm? What about the inhabitants’ strange behaviour? Last but not least, what about the scientifically unaccountable behaviour of the fog over the city, which never disperses?’

  ‘You arouse my curiosity,’ said Smyke.

  ‘Let’s stick to the facts as we know them,’ said Kolibri. ‘Not far north of Florinth on the west coast of Zamonia stands the city of Murkholm, which owes its name to the ultra-stable pall of fog that hovers over it. Some especially simple souls believe this fog to be a living creature, and you’d be surprised how many far more preposterous little myths surround that part of the world. But, as so often, those myths contain a microscopic grain of truth. If that grain of truth exists in Murkholm I shall find it, preserve it, dissect it, measure it, and draw my scientific conclusions. I specialise in microscopic life forms.’

  ‘What method do you use?’ asked Smyke. ‘As a scientist, do you favour some kind of, er, tactical approach?’

  ‘Well, my first step will be to go to Murkholm in person. I’ve already sent my equipment on ahead and rented a lighthouse there. The Murkholmers are more helpful than is generally believed – a few polite letters did the trick. That in itself was almost enough to disprove all those myths. People often go there on holiday, after all, so it can’t be as bad as all that.’

  ‘You’ve got guts,’ Smyke said admiringly.

 
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