Rumo and his miraculous.., p.43
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.43

           Walter Moers

  Medical diplomacy

  The king’s personal physicians were his first target. Hel’s senior medical men wielded power and influence at court, and they had extended that influence over the centuries, especially in regard to the public health service and the alchemists, who in their turn controlled the Vrahoks. Having perceived these links, Friftar proceeded to snap them. No one was better acquainted than he with Gornab’s little aches and pains, his genuinely serious ailments and the fine line between them, but he had long been careful not to meddle in medical matters, even when convinced that the king was receiving the wrong treatment.

  Friftar’s long-awaited opportunity came one day when Gornab had a terrible attack of breathlessness. Suddenly bereft of air, he went pale-blue in the face and threatened to lose consciousness. This attack – not that anyone but Friftar knew it – arose from his deformed chest and disastrous eating habits. While presiding over his privy council after a huge meal consisting almost entirely of greasy Woolspiders, Gornab had striven to suppress the resulting flatulence. The pent-up gases inflated his intestines, which eventually became so bloated that they compressed both lungs against his ribcage and put them out of action. The senior thoracic surgeon desperately tried to restore Gornab’s breathing by means of massage, but the king continued to gasp and his bluish face turned violet. The surgeon was ultimately reduced to suggesting a tracheotomy.

  Nearly all of Hel’s leading politicians were present at this meeting. Friftar seized his opportunity. Emerging from behind the throne, he loudly asked two questions. First, was the operation really unavoidable, and secondly, might it be life-threatening? The surgeon answered both questions in the affirmative. Then Friftar addressed a third question to the assembled politicians. Were they prepared to endorse such a risky procedure? They all nodded.

  Friftar thereupon seized the king by his ankles, yanked him off his throne, held him upside down and shook him vigorously. This caused an uproar. Someone shouted that the royal adviser had lost his mind and was trying to kill the king. But Gornab emitted a mighty fart and began to take greedy gulps of air. Friftar gently replaced him on his throne, where he soon recovered.

  Gornab’s faith in Friftar increased by leaps and bounds. His chief adviser proceeded to strip the physicians of power the very next day. The senior thoracic surgeon was thrown into prison – where he died of pneumonia – and all the other court physicians were placed under Friftar’s strict supervision. From now on he alone decided what medicines the king should take and determined their dosage. He prescribed a palatable diet and a certain amount of exercise, and within six months Gornab’s state of health had dramatically improved. Henceforth, Friftar could regulate it to suit himself.

  He also found it child’s play to take control of the public health service and the Alchemists’ Guild. Before long his invisible tentacles extended throughout the city. Never before in Hel had so much power and influence been concentrated in the hands of a single person unrelated to the royal family.

  Friftar’s next move was to assume control of the nobility and the masses. When studying the history of Hel he had been struck by the fact that its general decline during recent generations had gone hand in hand with the decline of the Theatre of Death. Being preoccupied with their own insane concerns, the rulers of Hel had completely failed to notice this. Unlike them, Friftar grasped that the entertainment of the masses was an important instrument of power, and nowhere did better opportunities for entertainment present themselves than at the Theatre of Death.

  In its heyday the theatre had been the throbbing heart of Hel, with daily gladiatorial contests and an ensemble numbering over a thousand, including fighters, trainers, guards and keepers. An intricate underground labyrinth housed a whole menagerie of dangerous wild beasts and the complex theatre machinery that raised and lowered them in their cages.

  It was hard to tell exactly when the Theatre of Death had started to go downhill, but it must have been during the Eighth Epoch. The directors became more and more corrupt and their shows more boring because they made false economies and were more concerned to feather their own nests than stage exciting shows. They neglected to obtain replacements for the wild beasts slaughtered in combat, so their menagerie dwindled to a few dozen. The underground machinery grew rusty and eventually ceased to function altogether. Fights were still held in the dilapidated stadium, but usually to half-empty houses. One direct consequence of the theatre’s decline was growing disorder in the city at large. Criminality increased, alternative fights were staged in the streets and illegal betting offices sprang up everywhere. It was only a question of time before these nefarious activities got completely out of hand.

  Friftar persuaded Gornab to put him in charge of the theatre. He assembled the city’s finest architects and craftsmen and instructed them to restore the stadium to the splendour it had displayed in its prime. He had the machinery repaired, constructed additional tiers of seats and renovated the royal box. More wild beasts were trapped and transported to the theatre, and the gladiators were now trained by ambitious, well-paid professional soldiers. Many royal functionaries lost their posts, others their heads, and some found themselves back in the arena in short order, face to face with ravenous cave bears.

  However, Friftar realised that this was not enough. Success and popularity could not be restored by royal decree alone. His way of redirecting public attention to the theatre was simple but brilliant. Once the renovations were complete he organised an elaborate inaugural ceremony at which he proclaimed, in the king’s presence, that killing was an art. Like architecture and alchemy, killing – though only in the arena and in front of an audience – was now an acknowledged art form under royal patronage and would be brought to a pitch of perfection. This little rhetorical trick proved more effective than all the costly restoration work. It turned murder into a creative act and mercenaries, criminals and other professional killers into artists. Whether in the arena or merely watching, those present in the Theatre of Death had acquired a touch of glamour overnight. No longer a crude form of public entertainment, the shows had become highbrow art connoisseurs’ delights. The masses flocked to the theatre and the nobility, too, were compelled to reoccupy their tiers of seats because none of them wanted to be thought a philistine.

  The Theatre of Death had been the diseased heart of Hel and Friftar had succeeded in getting it to beat once more. He could now reap the benefits of his self-sacrificial labours, because the theatre was a meeting place for the three elements he aspired to control: the king, the aristocracy, and the lower orders.

  Friftar’s theatrical successes had made him a popular politician and an artist of repute, but he had not yet attained his ultimate objective, which was to liquidate Gornab the Ninety-Ninth, neutralise the aristocracy and assume power himself.

  The Wolpertings

  For this purpose he had concocted a daring plan. He proposed to launch a coup d’état in the course of a unique performance at the Theatre of Death. Preparations had been in hand for a considerable time. According to Friftar’s Overworld spies, the new inhabitants of the first Urban Flytrap, who were known as Wolpertings, would make exceptionally good theatre personnel. They were fighters of a calibre such as Hel had never seen before. Friftar’s plan was as simple as it was bloodthirsty. While the Wolpertings were killing each other in the arena in the most spectacular fashion, and while the king, nobility and lower orders were stupefied and intoxicated by the sight of blood, he would have the theatre surrounded by the army and the Vrahoks. Then, when the slaughter and public enthusiasm were at their height, Friftar would stab the king to death with a glass dagger and seize power with everyone looking on. Once the nobility had also been exterminated, a new era could begin. The ensuing generations would then be measured in Friftars, not Gornabs.

  But just when Friftar’s plans were working out so splendidly, something unforeseen put a spoke in his wheel. The ambitions of the king’s chief adviser were thwarted by fate in the shape of an army
of murderous and invincible mechanical beings. The dreaded General Ticktock and his Copper Killers had come marching into Hel.

  The Reppoc Srellik

  All eyes were on the throne as Gornab’s garbled address rang out across the arena. The king bleated with laughter like a demented goat. Then his mood abruptly changed and he subjected Friftar to a furious glare.

  ‘Why aren’t they adlaupping?’ he hissed. ‘Are they fead? Didn’t I essprex myself entillibly? Why no avotion?’

  Friftar bowed low. ‘As so often, Your Majesty, the acoustics are to blame for the lack of applause. Of course you expressed yourself intelligibly. Your words were like the clear, ringing notes of a silver bell, like an elfin song winging its way through the ether. At present, however, all sounds are being absorbed by another … er, temporary surge in the earth’s natural magnetism. Permit me, therefore to repeat your speech in the vulgar tongue, loudly enough for it to reach even the most unwashed ears in this low-born audience.’

  ‘Merpission granted! Ceedpro!’ Gornab growled, gesturing impatiently. ‘Sputid rabble! It’s waysal the same lemprob!’

  ‘Greetings, new captives of the Theatre of Death!’ Friftar declaimed, repeating the king’s speech in the correct syllabic order. ‘You have been brought here to fight! You have been brought here to perish! O you fortunate ones! O you chosen ones! You are destined to fight and perish for the entertainment of this distinguished audience! And fight you will! And perish you will! That is your inescapable destiny! Let the killing commence!’

  The audience treated the king to a standing ovation.

  ‘Hmph,’ grunted Gornab, ‘why coldun’t they have auppladed in the stirf clape?’

  Friftar raised his arms and the applause died away. He turned to the Wolpertings.

  ‘Just so you understand the rules once and for all, we shall now give you a demonstration. It will feature one of your own kind.’

  ‘Show them the Reppoc Srellik!’ hissed Gornab. ‘The Reppoc Srellik!’

  Friftar smote his brow. ‘Ah yes,’ he cried, ‘how could I have forgotten?’

  He pointed dramatically to the topmost gallery, which still seemed unoccupied. ‘Kindly observe the Copper Killers above you.’

  The chained Wolpertings heard noises issuing from the gallery above them – clicking, clanking, whirring, jingling noises – and out of the darkness behind the parapet stepped some mail-clad warriors. Only a few at first, then more and more until there were hundreds of them. Their burnished armour glittered in the torchlight.

  The Wolpertings broke into a murmur, the spectators rose and stamped their feet in delight until the auditorium shook. Gornab clapped his hands. ‘The Reppoc Srellik! The Reppoc Srellik!’ he croaked.

  ‘The Copper Killers!’ yelled the spectators. ‘The Copper Killers!’

  Friftar lowered his arm and they all resumed their seats. In the absolute hush that followed he made his way to the front of the royal box.

  ‘This will not be a very spectacular fight,’ he cried, ‘not a fight designed to entertain the audience, just a brief demonstration of the rules for the new fighters. The rules are simple and there are only two. The first is fight!’

  ‘Fight!’ the audience chorused.

  Friftar raised two fingers. ‘And the second rule is: there’s no second rule.’

  ‘There’s no second rule!’ yelled the audience.

  Friftar smiled. ‘That shouldn’t be too hard to remember.’

  ‘There’s no ondsec lure!’ Gornab laughed. ‘No ondsec lure!’

  Friftar raised his arms again and called loudly, ‘Proceed with the demonstration!’

  ‘Yes, teg on with the foncounded stremondation!’ Gornab cried impatiently. ‘Atoub emit, too! Did you sectel an ice old one?’

  Friftar nodded. ‘Yes, I selected a nice old one.’

  Ornt El Okro in the arena

  The northern gate opened and an elderly Wolperting tottered in. Hesitantly, he made his way to the centre of the arena. It was Ornt El Okro, the cabinetmaker. He looked bemused, as if the anaesthetic gas had only just worn off, and he was holding a sword in his hand.

  The southern gate opened. Several seconds went by, then a dog came limping out – limping because it only had three legs. It was a mongrel puppy whose pale-brown fur was flecked with black. If it had had a pair of horns it would have resembled a very small Wolperting. One or two of the spectators laughed.

  ‘That’s your opponent,’ Friftar called to Ornt. ‘Kill him!’

  ‘Yes, klil him!’ Gornab repeated.

  Ornt looked up in bewilderment. He made no move to attack the little creature. He wasn’t going to kill any dog – he wasn’t going to kill anyone. What was going on here? He’d been worried sick about Rumo. The last thing he remembered was getting drunk and falling into bed. Now he was suffering from the world’s worst hangover and everyone around him had gone mad. Shielding his eyes with the sword blade, he scanned the spectators for some clue to this mystery.

  Gornab stood up on his short legs.

  ‘You feruse to klil him?’ he demanded, sounding strangely, joyfully expectant.

  Ornt stared at the royal box in bewilderment. He had no idea what the hideous dwarf expected of him or what language he was speaking, so he replied in a universally intelligible manner: he threw away his sword and spat. The puppy limped over, wagging its tail, and sniffed the blade.

  ‘You refuse to kill him?’ Friftar translated, propping his chin on his hand like someone studying a picture lost in thought. At this secret signal there was a stirring in the Copper Killers’ gallery. Metallic noises filled the theatre, but the spectators preserved an expectant silence. One or two of them rose for a better look. Dozens of Copper Killers had cocked their crossbows and aimed them at Ornt El Okro.

  ‘Ornt!’ cried someone from the Wolpertings’ gallery. ‘Pick it up! Pick up that sword!’

  Ornt looked up. Someone had called his name. He knew that voice. Did it belong to Urs of the Snows?

  ‘The first rule is: Fight! The second rule is: There is no second rule!’ Friftar repeated solemnly.

  Ornt turned and retraced his steps towards the northern gate. He’d had enough of this tomfoolery.

  Friftar gave another almost imperceptible signal: he raised his little finger.

  ‘Ornt!’ Urs’s voice rang round the auditorium. ‘Pick up that goddamned sword!’

  From the Copper Killers’ gallery came a series of clicks followed by a hum that sounded as if a swarm of bees were flying across the arena. When it ceased Ornt resembled a pincushion. Dozens of crossbow bolts of assorted lengths were protruding from his body. He collapsed, his life snuffed out in an instant, and several of the shafts snapped under the weight of his bulky old frame. A collective groan went up from the ranks of the Wolpertings.

  The puppy sniffed Ornt’s face inquisitively. Another hum filled the air and a long copper arrow transfixed its neck, pinning it to the floor of the arena.

  ‘The killing has commenced,’ Friftar announced solemnly, handing the king a goblet of wine.

  ‘Yes,’ whispered Gornab. ‘At tsal! The gillink has demencecom!’

  The Fridgicaves

  Rumo had decided to take the Fridgicaves route. In accordance with Skullop’s instructions he had simply followed his nose for an entire day until he reached a precipitous wall of rock pierced by at least a dozen wide tunnels. Some led steeply upwards, others downwards. After a moment’s hesitation he entered one that seemed to descend in a gradual manner.

  While making his way along this tunnel he couldn’t help noticing that it was getting steadily colder and more draughty. Rumo had never been so cold in his life, but he was steadfastly determined not to turn back, so he pressed on regardless.

  Like nearly everything else in Netherworld, the tunnel was a luminous blue. Furred with frost and fringed with icicles, it was inhabited by unfamiliar insects resembling eyeless, crystalline grasshoppers that rattled softly when they moved. An icy wind was howling a
long the shaft.

  ‘We should have gone the top way,’ Dandelion grumbled.

  Krindle preserved a dogged silence. He was clearly feeling put out because Rumo hadn’t complied with his request to cut Skullop the Scyther in half.

  ‘It’s too late now,’ said Rumo.

  ‘It’s never too late to be flexible,’ Dandelion retorted. ‘There’s a fine but important distinction between determination and pig-headedness.’

  ‘I’m not turning back,’ Rumo said firmly.

  After they had been going for some hours the tunnel opened out into a gigantic cavern whose floor consisted of a pale-blue expanse of ice. The walls, which were covered with stalactitic formations thousands of years old, looked like cascades of water that had frozen solid in an instant. Cold air was whistling and howling into the cavern through innumerable fissures in the walls. There was no luminous mist or blue rain here, only snow and wind.

  ‘This place looks mighty cold,’ said Dandelion.

  Apprehensively, Rumo ventured out on to the broad, frozen expanse. Several dozen of the furry little creatures he’d seen before were slithering around on it and attempting to chip out slivers of ice with their hooked beaks.

  Dandelion goes too far

  The pale-blue layer of ice emitted ominous creaks and groans under Rumo’s weight, and it yielded ominously at the very first step he took. The dark water beneath it was in motion. He could see flattened bubbles swirling to and fro.

  ‘You realise you’re walking on water?’ said Dandelion.


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