Rumo and his miraculous.., p.24
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.24

           Walter Moers
 

  If Rumo’s crowded life left room for anything in the way of spare time, he spent it reading the Prince Sangfroid novels. The day he passed his literacy exam, Axel had come to his room with a stack of dog-eared paperbacks, tossed them on to his bed and fervently extolled their unique qualities. They were, he said, the most brilliant, exciting and suspenseful books that any Zamonian author had ever written. Compared to them, the entire works of Hildegard Mythmaker were fit only for use in a public convenience. No one with a heart in his breast could resist the hypnotic appeal of these literary masterpieces.

  And so it turned out. Although Rumo found the first few pages hard going, he read with growing ease as time went by and ended by becoming an ardent Prince Sangfroid fan. The prince was a character created by Count Klantoo of Nairland, a best-selling novelist whose sensational thrillers were universally popular with the younger generation of Zamonians. Count Klantoo had borrowed the name of his hero from the legend about the Wolpertings’ origins recounted in class by Harra of Midgard.

  The Prince Sangfroid series of novels dealt with a subject in which Rumo was keenly interested, namely heroism of an exemplary kind. Inspired by the noblest of motives, the prince fought the most dastardly villains and horrific monsters, and each of his adventures featured a different, incredibly beautiful, princess. Much to Rumo’s relief, however, every Prince Sangfroid book ended with a description of the hero proceeding on his lonely way because new and appalling dangers required his urgent intervention.

  Oga of Dullsgard had taught Rumo to read, but Prince Sangfroid taught him to become engrossed in the printed word.

  The second-best swordsman in Wolperting

  ‘They’re getting ready for the annual fair,’ Urs said one evening. ‘Have you seen?’

  Rumo had naturally noticed the activities in progress outside the city walls. Tents and booths had been set up on the edge of the moat, and masses of strangers were milling around out there. It had been explained to him that this was a friendly siege mounted with the mayor’s permission.

  ‘It’ll be a gas! Think of it: mulled ale and all the food you can eat!’

  ‘Hm,’ Rumo said indifferently.

  ‘Why aren’t you interested in food?’ Urs had cooked Rumo an excellent supper – leg of sucking pig and carrots on a bed of puréed potatoes flavoured with saffron – but Rumo had bolted it without comment as usual and – also as usual – left half of it.

  ‘I like being hungry,’ said Rumo, as if that explained everything.

  ‘Well, well, so you enjoy being hungry. You might just as well say “I like having toothache”’.

  Rumo pondered this. His mind went back to the time when his teeth were growing. ‘Toothache has its points,’ he said.

  ‘You’re only assigned one municipal friend in your life,’ said Urs, ‘and I had to get you, of all people. I suppose I should regard it as a kind of test.’

  ‘What makes you so interested in food?’

  ‘I aim to become the best cook in the city.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Well, every Wolperting is the best at something, as you know, and since I can never become the best swordsman here, only the second-best, I thought that cooking—’

  ‘You, the second-best swordsman in Wolperting?’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘Oh, sure!’ Rumo laughed.

  ‘I used to be, at least. Not now, perhaps, more like number four or five. It’s ages since I touched a blade longer than my kitchen knife, but I could still hold my own among the first five, take it from me.’

  ‘Says you!’

  ‘A few years ago I was the best swordsman in Wolperting, that’s official. You can check with the mayor’s office. There’s even a diploma on the wall there.’

  ‘Pull the other one!’

  ‘Go to City Hall if you don’t believe me!’

  Rumo was impressed by Urs’s righteous indignation. ‘So how come you used to be the best swordsman in Wolperting, then the second-best, and now you don’t fence at all? I’ve never seen you with a rapier in your paw.’

  ‘I don’t like weapons,’ Urs growled, bowing his head. The subject seemed to distress him.

  Rumo pricked up his ears. ‘You used to be the best swordsman in Wolperting and you don’t like weapons? Explain that and you can have my cookie ration for a week.’

  Urs cheered up at that. ‘Have I never told you?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘You never tell me anything either.’

  ‘I’m not good with words.’

  ‘That’s true.’

  ‘Come on, tell me!’ Rumo demanded.

  The story of Urs of the Snows

  Urs sighed. ‘All right. I can’t remember it myself, but my foster-father told me how he found me as a puppy in the forests of North End, half frozen in the middle of winter. My foster-father was Koram Morak, a Vulphead who earned his living as a duellist.’

  ‘What’s a duellist?’

  ‘You become a duellist when you’ve nothing more to lose, including your fear of death, or when you’ve a screw loose. In Koram’s case it was a bit of both. Professional duellists fight duels for other people, understand? They do it for money.’

  ‘An exciting job.’

  ‘You could call it that. There was never a dull moment at home. I never knew, when my foster-father went off to work, whether he would come back in the evening. Once he showed up with an arrow through his ear, another time with half a sabre snapped off in his back. It wasn’t that he earned a lot. Almost anyone could afford a duellist, there were so many of them – in fact, they sometimes fought for a slice of bread and butter. Quite often two duellists would do the fighting while the real antagonists stood there placing bets on their representatives – and in those days people duelled for any old reason. I had to be prepared to become an orphan again at least once a week.’

  ‘Sounds like a happy childhood.’

  Urs laughed. ‘It could have been worse. It was exciting, anyway. Youngsters are only unhappy when they’re bored. The worst thing was the food. Koram knew as much about cooking and eating as … as you do!’

  ‘Thanks.’

  ‘Yes, it really was intolerable. He used to put sugar in the soup – that sort of thing. The food was appalling, so I took over that part of the housekeeping when I was old enough. And, lo and behold, I enjoyed it. That’s how I came to cook.’

  ‘I see.’

  ‘The worst of it was, Koram wasn’t very good at duelling. He could fence a bit and shoot a bit with the crossbow, and do a bit of knife throwing, but only a bit of everything. He was tough – that was what saved him. He didn’t slink off home because he’d taken an arrow through the ear, not him! He didn’t lie down and whimper for the doctor after the first flesh wound; he fought on, even if the blood was spurting from ten wounds. One night he came home white as a sheet, pale as a ghost – I got a terrible shock when I saw him. His opponent had severed two arteries but he’d fought on and won – and then sewn up the arteries himself. He lived on a diet of raw calves’ liver and pig’s blood for two weeks until he could stand without falling over. He’d lost just about everything anyone could have hacked off or shot away: three fingers, one eye, half an ear, two toes, a slice here, a slice there. You could have made a dwarf out of all the separate pieces. That was why I learnt to fence. One day, I told myself, they’ll cut the last slice out of him and he won’t be there any more.’

  Urs pointed to Rumo’s half-eaten leg of sucking pig. ‘Aren’t you going to finish that?’

  Rumo shook his head. Urs grabbed the leg and took a bite.

  ‘Koram would never have dreamt of getting me to work for him,’ he went on, chewing with gusto. ‘That was all my idea. When he found me in the snow he thought I’d make an excellent watchdog. He wasn’t scared of me, the way people usually are, even when I grew up into a big, strong Wolperting. He treated me like his own son.’

  Urs lowered the leg of pork.

  ‘So I asked him to teach
me to fence, ostensibly for self-protection, because I spent so much time alone while he was away duelling and so on. He agreed, but the longer we practised and trained and fought the more I realised what a poor swordsman he was and how much better at it I was. I had a burning ambition to be more than a match for him, and it really wasn’t long before I reached that stage. I didn’t let on, mind you. I always held myself in check and allowed him to win, but in reality I got better and better – in fact, I could have disarmed him with a poker. Well, one day he was due to fight a duel for which the other side had engaged Hogg the Hunk. Hogg was the most celebrated and dreaded duellist in the whole of North End, a gigantic brute of a wild boar. It would have been suicide for Koram to go up against him and I was at the top of my form, honestly. I couldn’t wait to try out my skill in a genuine fight.

  ‘So I devised a simple little plan. I had to persuade Koram to let me fight the duel in his place. I persuaded him by bringing a coal shovel down on the back of his thick skull – in fact, I nearly killed him, I had to hit him so hard. Then I took our two best sabres and went off to the duel. I told Hogg I was Koram Morak and he believed me, not being acquainted with my foster-father. Well, Hogg was certainly no slouch. He fended me off for a minute or two, but then I systematically took him apart. I didn’t kill him – I’ve never killed anyone in combat – but I left him with so many scars that he never fought another duel. I remember exactly what I thought as I made my way home. I thought: Hey, you’re pretty good! Funnily enough, though, it didn’t give me any pleasure at all. Anyway, Koram had just recovered consciousness when I got home. “Wow,” I said to him, “you certainly taught old Hogg a thing or two. A shame he knocked you out just before he hit the ground.”

  ‘“Did he?” said Koram. “I don’t remember.” And then I cooked us some supper. We had saddle of lamb in breadcrumbs seasoned with thyme and a cherry tomato salad on the side.’

  Urs took another bite out of the leg of pork.

  ‘The problem was that Hogg the Hunk now went around showing everyone his scars and telling them what a hell of a fellow Koram Morak was, an invincible magician of a swordsman, and so on and so forth. Well, you know how it is: it wasn’t long before every sabre-rattler in Zamonia wanted to fight this Koram Morak.’

  Urs sighed.

  ‘The fact was, I’d dislodged a regular avalanche. Yogur the Butcher, Gollup of the Gulch, Gahiji of the Three Blades, Swatkin the Slayer, Pincushion Pratt, Yamboo Yooli, Hoku the Toothless – every few weeks some brain-dead barbarian would appear outside our shack and challenge Koram to a duel. When that happened my only recourse was the coal shovel. Then I went off and riddled my opponent with holes. I told Koram the same story every time he came round: how he’d made mincemeat of someone but been knocked out at the last moment. In the end, Koram scarcely had time to recover his wits between duels. I was afraid he’d become permanently deranged if things went on that way, but I didn’t know what else to do.’

  Urs drew a deep breath.

  Evel the Octopus

  ‘Then, one day, Evel the Octopus appeared at our door, the most dreaded duellist in all Zamonia. He had no more arms than you or I – they called him the Octopus because he seemed to have at least eight when fighting, or so the story went. I went to fetch the coal shovel, but it wasn’t there. At that moment it came crashing down on my head – bang! – and everything went black. Koram had tumbled to my game – it had gone on long enough, heaven knows – and given me a dose of my own medicine. When I came to, Koram Morak, my foster-father, was lying outside in the snow in a pool of blood.’

  Urs emitted a sob. A single tear trickled down his cheek and lost itself in his fur.

  ‘I took our weapons and scoured Zamonia for Evel the Octopus. This time I was determined to give my opponent more than a few scars; just this once, I was prepared to kill. Oh yes, I was ready to kill all right, but Evel seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. That was when I realised what happens when you take up arms, even in a good cause. One thing leads to another and in the end the weapon triumphs. Those confounded blades are like vampires, they drink blood and induce you to supply them with some. Sooner or later you realise that they wield you, not the other way round.’

  ‘Yes, yes,’ Rumo said dismissively. ‘All right, but what brought you to Wolperting?’

  ‘The usual thing: I saw the Silver Thread one day. I found its source – in Wolperting, naturally – in the person of Sheena of the Snows, but that’s another story. Once here I did what you’re doing now. I went to school and took fencing lessons – this was before Ushan DeLucca’s time. It soon turned out that I was the best swordsman in the city. No one could match my experience. I was even asked to head the fencing school, but I wanted nothing to do with it, honestly not. I did give a few fencing lessons, though, because everyone kept badgering me – telling me it was my civic duty as the city’s finest swordsman, et cetera. Then, when Ushan DeLucca arrived here a few years later, it put paid to my status as the best swordsman in Wolperting. DeLucca is a born swordsman, an absolute natural. Believe me, I was thoroughly relieved when everyone stopped fussing over me. The youngsters these days don’t even know I can hold a rapier in my paw.’

  ‘Could you give me some tuition?’

  ‘In what?’

  ‘Fencing, of course.’

  ‘Fencing? I can’t fence myself any more.’

  ‘You just said you were the second-best.’

  ‘Fifth-best at most.’

  ‘That’s good enough for me. Will you?’

  ‘Can’t I talk you out of it?’

  ‘No. You should have kept your mouth shut.’

  Urs sighed and gnawed a final shred of pork off the bone.

  ‘I ought to have sent you away with a flea in your ear when you turned up outside the gates,’ he said. ‘You were nothing but trouble, I could smell it.’

  Starting the next day, Urs and Rumo used to leave the city late in the afternoon and disappear into the northern woods. Rumo always carried a long, cloth-wrapped bundle under his arm, and several of his classmates, who had spotted him and his friend, wondered what they got up to out there.

  The truth was, Urs gave Rumo fencing lessons every evening until sunset and sometimes by torchlight after dark. The bundle contained two sabres, two rapiers and two daggers, which Rumo had carved from hardwood.

  Although Urs soon recalled the essentials of swordsmanship, he sometimes imparted them in the wrong order. He taught Rumo complicated moves and attacks before simple ones, and got a few technical terms mixed up, but in general Rumo found his tuition more rewarding than Ushan DeLucca’s laborious, almost bureaucratic teaching methods. One thing became absolutely clear to him: Urs detested fencing. His aptitude for it not only bored him, it troubled him. He disliked everything about it: the mechanical movements, the concentration, the discipline, the eternal repetitions. Urs had devised various ways of getting around these rules. Although he taught Rumo those too, it didn’t change his opinion that fencing wasn’t an art, but a strenuous, tedious, vicious, nonsensical form of sport.

  Teaching Rumo was a genuine favour to a friend. Urs would so much rather have taught him how to cook!

  But he couldn’t have had a better pupil. Where fencing was concerned, Rumo was almost fanatical in his eagerness to learn. He soaked up Urs’s theoretical remarks like a sponge, was tireless in practice, and repeated each exercise to the point of utter exhaustion. Rumo was the driving force. He resisted any attempt by Urs to cut a lesson short or omit it altogether. Even when they got home and Urs had long since retired to bed, he would get out the fencing manuals he’d borrowed from the library and read until sleep overcame him. Among his reading matter was a slim booklet by Ushan DeLucca tersely entitled Swordsmanship. Rumo studied that work most attentively of all.

  Parries and feints

  Rumo’s lessons in the woods covered the following: how to hold the weapon; the salute; the backwards jump; the forwards jump; the lunge step; the flèche attac
k; the simple direct hit; the disengage; the hit with coulée. Then the parries: the direct parry; the parries in prime and seconde; the ceding parry: the ceding parries in tierce and quarte. The riposte and remise. Then the feints: the hit feint; the feint by disengage; the feint by taking the opponent’s blade; the double feint; the DeLuccan feint; the feint feint; the wishbone feint with remise; the double wishbone feint with remise; the feint by double disengage; the feint at flank in quarte; the DeLuccan feint at flank in quarte; and Urs’s Home-Made Feint at Flank in Quarte, which was so bewilderingly effective that all the other feints at flank in quarte could safely be forgotten.

  Rumo learnt the attack by taking the blade (a direct hit followed by a feint); the beat attack (battering the centre of an opponent’s blade to force him out of position); the vertical, horizontal, spiral and radical modes of disarming an opponent (the latter invented by Urs); the crisscross attack with two blades; the concealed parry (a hit delivered from behind one’s back); the matador’s thrust (downwards through the throat into the heart); and the Raging Tornado, an attack that required an exceptional amount of practice. And Rumo learnt not only how to launch all these attacks but how to counter them as well. He repeatedly practised the Flat Slap defence, an exercise of which Urs seemed particularly fond.

  Urs taught Rumo how to wield the blade while lying on the ground; how to defend himself with one paw tied to a tree or with one leg buried in the ground – the so-called Swamp Simulation. They practised sword-plus-dagger fencing, in which opponents fought two-handed with blades of different length, and weaponless combat, which was really an escape tactic involving leaps, somersaults and forward rolls – a technique for use when disarmed. They fought in the treetops, swinging from branch to branch like monkeys; they fought in densely wooded terrain with rotten, slippery branches underfoot; they fought while wading through bogs or up to their waists in water. ‘You never know when it’ll come to the crunch,’ said Urs. ‘It may be wintertime and you’re ankle-deep in slush or standing on an icy pavement, or it may be night-time and you’re halfway down some rickety cellar stairs in the dark. Those textbook drawings are seldom realistic: two perfectly posed fencers confronting one another in a dry, well-lit gymnasium. You’re more likely to find yourself on a clifftop at night, lashed by flying spray – and it’ll be hailing into the bargain.’ That was why they practised in all conditions. Any weather was fencing weather, said Urs.

 

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