Rumo and his miraculous.., p.23
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.23

           Walter Moers
 

  Rumo and Rolv often came up against each other in training, but from now on with mutual respect. Although the Battle of Laundry Lane had not made friends of them, their burning desire to defeat one another in combat seemed to have evaporated, so they avoided one another by tacit agreement. If they competed at all, it was only in accumulating as much knowledge as possible of as many subjects as possible.

  A challenge

  ‘Who’d like to take me on?’

  Ushan DeLucca’s words died away. It was Rumo’s first lesson with the legendary swordsman. He was surprised to note that the pupils on the benches around him had lowered their gaze. They were all trying to avoid the teacher’s eye.

  ‘What’s the matter? Are you Wolpertings or sheep? Born fighters or born cowards?’ DeLucca strutted up and down in front of the benches, noisily slashing the air with his rapier.

  ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst!’ went the rapier.

  ‘So you’re sheep, are you? Look at me – look me in the eye, you yellow-bellies!’ Ushan DeLucca was in one of his grim moods, everyone in the class could tell. Everyone except Rumo.

  ‘How can I teach you anything if you’re too scared to fight?’

  ‘I’ll fight you!’ cried Rumo, jumping up. He was itching to cross blades with Ushan DeLucca. He’d been issued with his very first weapon – a rapier – when the lesson began. The hilt felt as warm in his paw as if it had just come from the smithy.

  Ushan DeLucca gave a gentle, understanding smile, every inch the fatherly friend and teacher. ‘So you’d like to fight me, Rumo of Zamonia? You’re thirsting for armed combat, eh? Excellent. You aren’t like these cowards here – you’re a youngster after my own heart! Come here, my son!’

  Rumo stepped forward. His classmates ventured to look up again.

  DeLucca had settled on his victim.

  Ushan DeLucca’s story

  Ushan DeLucca discovered that he was the best swordsman in Zamonia when his life had hit rock bottom. It happened around midnight, in a dark side street in the seediest district of Baysville. Almost blind drunk, he had been robbing a helpless farmer with six confederates.

  Ushan’s wild parents had abandoned him in the woods near the town. One day, while rummaging in a municipal rubbish dump for something fit to eat, he fell into the clutches of a dog catcher. The latter shut him up in a big wooden cage with a couple of dozen lice-infested mongrels and taught him some painful and humiliating lessons on the subject of ‘might is right’ – until Ushan entered the fast-growing phase and became ruler of the roost. When the dog catcher noticed that he was turning into a big, strong Wolperting and reducing the population of the cage by a dog or two every night, he released him. Having knocked him out with an anaesthetic dart in the leg, he loaded him on to a cart and dumped him on the cobblestones in the most disreputable part of town. It was late at night when Ushan recovered consciousness. The bars were overflowing with drunks, and despite his aching head the Wolperting was irresistibly fascinated by their tipsy shouts and laughter. What impressed him most of all was the way they all went around on two legs. Eager to do likewise, Ushan rose on his hind legs for the very first time and tottered into the nearest tavern. Called The Last Stop, it was to be his home for the next five years.

  The landlord, a Demidwarf from the Dead Mountains, recognised Ushan’s earning potential at once because his grandfather had traded in Wolperting whelps. Knowing that such a creature was worth its weight in gold provided you gained its trust, he fed Ushan a big piece of meat, bedded him down on some warm blankets in a little room of his own – and gave him a bottle of rum. When Ushan awoke the next morning his head was aching even worse than before. The landlord came up to his room, served him a gigantic hangover-cure breakfast and later on brought him another bottle of rum. Within a few days Ushan was allowed to eat in a corner of the taproom. After his meals he would sit there in silence and get drunk. Within a few weeks he had become so addicted to rum that he couldn’t imagine life without it. That was when the landlord, before handing him a new bottle, told him, ‘Just a minute! Nothing in life is free, especially in this place, understand?’

  Desperately, Ushan groped for the bottle with his paw, but the landlord kept snatching it away at the last moment.

  ‘No, of course you don’t understand, you’re just a stupid, half-wild Wolperting. But that can be changed. I’m going to teach you to speak and keep you in rum, and in return I’ll spend the next few years taking the fullest advantage of you. Does that sound like a fair bargain?’

  Ushan whimpered.

  ‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ The landlord handed over the bottle and Ushan drained it greedily.

  ‘Do you realise what first-class tipple that is?’ asked the landlord. ‘It’s finest Ushan rum from the cane fields of DeLucca – fifty-eight per cent alcohol. Which reminds me, have you got a name?’

  To begin with Ushan performed the most menial of bar-room tasks. He emptied the spittoons, swept the floor, swabbed away bloodstains after brawls, rolled beer barrels in and chucked out drunks late at night. When the landlord noticed that he always acquitted himself well during punch-ups he appointed him his personal bodyguard and cashier. From then on he never had to wash dishes again. His only task was to loiter beside the till with a mug of rum in his paw, look vicious, and beat up any customers who refused to pay.

  Ushan couldn’t imagine a life without hard liquor; in fact, he didn’t even know there were creatures that weren’t intoxicated from dawn to dusk. The Last Stop and its clientele were his universe. Every customer started the day with a slug of liquor and ended it blind drunk; to Ushan that was the normal way of life. He also considered it quite natural that none of his acquaintances had a regular occupation other than killing time in the gloomy taproom – or, occasionally, killing some defenceless drunk for his small change in the yard behind the tavern. His friends had names like Ham-Bone Honko or Knuckleduster Noobi, Kosh the Cat or Twelve-Fingered Timm, so it was understandable that he didn’t learn to play the harp from them. They taught him how to steal, to burgle people’s homes, to lose himself in a crowd or the sewers, to mint and pass counterfeit money, to cheat at cards and fence stolen goods. In short, they turned him into a thoroughgoing professional criminal. If Ushan had walked into a bakery or a smithy that first night, he might have become a respectable pastrycook or blacksmith, but at The Last Stop he could only have ended up a crook. His cronies told him that no one but an idiot went to college and learnt a trade when there was far easier money to be made. You had only to take what you wanted. The sole requirements were a bit of luck, strong nerves, and an occasional resort to violence. His friends and acquaintances sometimes disappeared for varying lengths of time, and many of them never returned at all. Ushan was then told that they had gone on holiday or left town because there were better career prospects elsewhere.

  To his friends’ regret, Ushan was an inefficient crook. It wasn’t that he didn’t try, far from it, but he simply didn’t have the knack. If he picked a pocket it was bound to belong to an undercover cop; if he burgled a house he inevitably trod on the sleeping watchdog, and if he passed forged money he did so to a member of the Fraud Squad. His cronies spent most of their time rescuing him from these tricky situations. Ushan was also unsuited to crimes of violence because he refused to carry a weapon, considering this unnecessary in view of his prowess with his fists. As a result, his status in the hierarchy of Baysville’s underworld steadily declined until he was entrusted with only the humblest tasks: holding ladders, acting as lookout, or playing the decoy. In the end he became a lantern-bearer.

  Lantern bearers were, in fact, regarded as members of a very respectable profession in the cities of Zamonia. They were paid to escort drunks and strangers home from taverns, especially in districts where the street lighting was poor. However, they included one or two black sheep who collaborated with criminals by luring their customers into prearranged ambushes, there to be robbed and sometimes killed. The lantern-bearers would then stand asid
e and light the cut-throats while they went about their nefarious business.

  Ushan, who always carried a bottle of rum on principle, was sometimes drunker than his victims. Although he had never been taught to know right from wrong, he felt a distressing sense of guilt – which only strong rum could alleviate – whenever he held the lantern for his false friends to do their nocturnal work.

  On the night that was to transform his life, Ushan was drunker than ever before. Having found his way to the prearranged spot with the utmost difficulty, he was standing there, swaying, as he watched his confederates – a gang of six Vulpheads who regularly drank away the proceeds of their crimes at The Last Stop – robbing their victim. The latter was a wealthy farmer from the countryside around Baysville, an intoxicated Demidwarf who had been celebrating a lucrative cattle sale until long past midnight. The farmer had clumsily drawn his sword when he spotted the ambush, but a blow on the wrist sent it clattering to the ground. Ushan, who was standing right beside him, instinctively picked it up, rather like someone politely retrieving a handkerchief. He had never touched a sword before.

  A remarkable change took place in Ushan DeLucca as he weighed the weapon in his hand: his head cleared for the first time in five years. It was as if all the alcohol in his bloodstream had transferred itself to the sword, which now took on a tipsy life of its own. He carved a semicircle out of the mist and skewered it with the tip. Then he described a five-pointed star, a bird in flight, the outlines of a galloping horse. He laughed aloud.

  ‘Hey, look what I can do!’

  ‘Stop that nonsense!’ called one of the Vulpheads.

  ‘And keep your trap shut!’ called another.

  Ushan felt as if a weight had fallen from his shoulders. All at once he could see things more clearly than ever before. Everything he’d done up to now – absolutely everything – had been wrong. He couldn’t help laughing again.

  ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst,’ he went, imitating the swish of the sword. ‘Six against one isn’t fair. Let him go!’

  The Vulpheads exchanged puzzled glances. The farmer stood there looking disconcerted.

  ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst!’ Ushan said again. ‘You heard me. Let … him … go!’

  The leader of the gang was the first to regain his composure. ‘Keep out of this, you drunken sot!’

  ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst!’ Ushan hissed. ‘What did you call me, Twelve-Fingered Timm? I’ve never been more sober in my life. Ssst, ssst, ssst!’

  ‘You said my name, you fool! Now we’ll have to kill him! All that drink must have addled your brain.’

  ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst! I can call you all by name: Knuckleduster Noobi, Kosh the Cat, Ham-Bone Honko, Light-Fingered Logg and Wostix, who still doesn’t have a nickname because he’s too stupid to earn one. As for my name, it’s Ushan DeLucca, like the rum.’

  ‘Are you mad?’ cried the farmer. ‘Now they’ll really have to kill me.’

  ‘You see?’ Twelve-Fingered Timm laughed. ‘Even he thinks so. Push off, Ushan! Take that confounded sword and get lost! We’ll deal with this.’

  ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst! Do you know what this is? It isn’t a sword, oh no! It’s part of me. I’ve grown an extra arm. Ssst, ssst, ssst.’

  ‘Get lost, Ushan!’ Twelve-Fingered Timm said in a low, menacing voice. He and the others had all drawn their swords.

  ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst,’ said Ushan. ‘No, you get lost. Leave the poor fellow alone and I’ll let you go, that’s the deal. Ssst, ssst, ssst!’

  He darted between the bandits as he uttered the last three ‘ssst’s, slitting the seat of Kosh the Cat’s pants – ssst – severing Knuckleduster Noobi’s belt – ssst – and giving Light-Fingered Logg a duelling scar – ssst.

  ‘Are you out of your mind?’ said Logg, clasping his bleeding cheek. But the crooks were still unimpressed. That was merely the signal for battle to commence.

  ‘Ssst, ssst!’ Ushan went softly. ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst!’ He danced across the cobblestones, light as a feather, and delivered five cuts, five wounds. Blood welled from Knuckleduster Noobi’s arm.

  Only Twelve-Fingered Timm was still unscathed. Resolutely, he lunged at Ushan, who parried his attack with a trio of nonchalant counterstrokes – ssst, ssst, ssst – and then, quick as lightning, transfixed his heart and promptly withdrew the blade. Twelve-Fingered Timm slumped, lifeless, to the cobblestones.

  ‘Yes,’ Ushan said as though to himself, ‘anyone with a weapon in his paw must be prepared to kill.’ He took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the blood from the blade and turned to the wounded bandits.

  ‘You’d better bandage that up,’ he said, tossing the bloody handkerchief to Noobi. ‘This is the beginning of a new age. The old Ushan DeLucca is dead – dead as poor Twelve-Fingered Timm here. I’m no longer Ushan DeLucca the lush. I’m Ushan of the Sword.’

  The five bandits backed away, slowly and cautiously, step by step, until the darkness swallowed them up.

  Ushan turned to the farmer. ‘Is it all right with you if I keep your sword? No offence, but I get the feeling it was made especially for me.’

  The farmer nodded mutely.

  ‘You can have my lantern in exchange.’

  Ushan’s figure melted into the darkness, but his voice could be heard for a while longer. ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst!’ it went. ‘Ssst, ssst, ssst …’ Ushan DeLucca had discovered what he was best at.

  A bloody nose

  ‘Attack me!’ Ushan commanded.

  Rumo had pondered his strategy. Ushan DeLucca didn’t look too quick on his pins. His poor deportment, the bags under his eyes, his wrinkled jowls, his pince-nez and languid way of speaking – none of these suggested that he was exceptionally athletic. His strong point was probably tactics and experience. Rumo decided to tackle him from below, to thrust at his legs and compel him to hop – he surely wouldn’t be expecting that. Then, when his guard was down, he would hold the blade to his throat. Rumo attacked.

  Ushan wielded his rapier from the wrist in a way Rumo found inexplicable. He stood there like a fence post and let his blade do the talking, not his body. No matter how often Rumo flexed his knees and thrust at Ushan’s legs, the teacher’s blade was always there first, ready to deflect his own in an effortless, almost nonchalant manner. He ended by parrying Rumo’s onslaughts with one hand in his trouser pocket. Some of the pupils tittered.

  ‘Yes, very good,’ Ushan said in a tone that clearly conveyed the opposite. ‘But you must wield your blade from the wrist, not the backside.’ He flourished the tip of his rapier under Rumo’s nose to demonstrate how easy it would be for him to poke his pupil’s eyes out.

  ‘My dear boy,’ he went on with a hearty yawn, ‘I’ve fought more exciting duels with the pendulum of my metronome.’

  Someone laughed.

  Rumo was beside himself. Something impenetrable had interposed itself between him and DeLucca, a barrier composed of countless blades. Quite unconnected with physical strength and stamina, it had to do with experience, intelligence and technical mastery. He realised that he knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about swordsmanship. He caught a sudden glint in the teacher’s eyes, but by then it was too late. He felt a sharp, surprising stab of pain such as he had experienced only once before: in the cave on Roaming Rock when the Demonocle hit him in the face with the torch. Ushan had nicked his nose with the tip of his rapier.

  Rumo began to weep, he couldn’t stop himself. The pain brought tears gushing from his eyes. He sobbed uncontrollably.

  ‘Aha,’ said Ushan. ‘Not a coward, just a cry-baby.’

  Nobody laughed this time, not even Rolv. They could all have been in Rumo’s shoes.

  ‘Very well,’ Ushan went on, paternally affectionate once more, ‘sit down on the bench, Rumo. Watch the lesson and memorise the various positions. Next time you can join in.’

  Rumo sat down. Blood was dripping from his nose.

  Ushan DeLucca proceeded with the normal lesson as if nothing had happened. Having performed a few limbering-up exercises,
the pupils took up their positions and crossed rapiers. DeLucca rapped out his commands, again and again, until universal exhaustion set in.

  ‘On guard!’

  ‘Hit!’

  ‘Disengage and hit!’

  ‘Lunge position!’

  ‘Circular parry in quinte!’

  ‘Cut at head!’

  ‘On guard!’

  ‘Rest!’

  The pupils laid their rapiers aside and dispersed. Rumo’s nose stopped bleeding just as the lesson ended.

  Woodcarvings and paperbacks

  Whenever Rumo wasn’t at school he enjoyed going to Ornt’s workshop and performing his civic duty there by lending him a hand, although a close observer might have concluded that Ornt was assisting Rumo.

  Rumo could conjure objects out of wood that no one but he had envisioned within it: not only simple objects like soup spoons or combs, but delicate sculptures, richly decorated wooden swords, or ornamental carvings for house fronts. He would take a length of cane and moments later he had transformed it into an elegant riding whip. Out of a balsa wood offcut he fashioned an artificial bird, light as a feather, that glided through the air for minutes on end. Every day Ornt marvelled anew at Rumo’s skill and the speed with which he worked.

  With Ornt’s help he produced a huge conference table for the council chamber in a day and a night. In the days that followed he adorned the table legs with carvings of four of the city’s principal features: the Wolper Bridge, the Black Dome, the Hoth Windmill, and the façade of City Hall. One lunch break he started whittling away at the massive oak beam over the workshop door. He carved some little scenes from everyday life at the cabinetmaker’s workshop, all astonishingly detailed and accurate: Ornt and himself wielding the two-handled saw, carpenter’s tools, the joiner’s bench, a portrait of Ornt smoking his pipe – he added some new detail at every opportunity. After initially grumbling that Rumo would spoil his nice doorway, Ornt had since become mightily proud of the splendid entrance to his workshop. Many Wolpertings walked past just to admire Rumo’s progress, and Ornt seized the opportunity to talk them into buying a chair or a stool.

 

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