Rumo and his miraculous.., p.50
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.50

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘Yes, wob it!’ snarled Gornab. ‘Wob it while you’ve still tog one!’

  Friftar withdrew at a crouch, walking backwards. He knew when to stick his neck out and when to retract it, and he intended to keep his head on his shoulders for the foreseeable future.

  What a dreary place,’ said Dandelion. ‘Stone trees with their tops lost in the mist. Everlasting drizzle. No wonder nothing grows here but these ugly black toadstools.’

  If Yggdra Syl had been right, it was really easy to get your bearings in Deadwood. Growing on most of the stone tree trunks was a profusion of black toadstools with little pointed caps, and they all pointed in the same direction. Towards Hel, so Rumo hoped.

  ‘They also grow in the Great Forest,’ said Krindle. ‘In my youth, when I was still living there, I had to live on an almost exclusive diet of them for six whole months. You get used to them. You have the wildest dreams and hear crazy music from other dimensions. For a month I thought backwards and saw everything in black and white and—’

  ‘Ssh!’ said Rumo. He had come to a halt.

  ‘What is it?’ Dandelion asked.

  Two voices,’ said Rumo. ‘Somewhere among the trees. Not far off.’ ‘Perhaps it’s the ghosts Yggdra Syl mentioned. Do they sound dangerous?’

  ‘No, it isn’t ghosts, it’s two people having an argument.’

  ‘What about?’

  Rumo strained his ears.

  They’re talking nonsense,’ he said at length, ‘but they’re talking about Hel. I’m going to waylay them.’

  ‘Good idea,’ said Krindle. ‘Then we’ll torture and kill them!’

  ‘Oh sure.’ Dandelion sighed. ‘Let’s do that.’

  Rumo materialised in front of the two figures like a ghost. It had been child’s play to creep up on them under cover of the massive tree trunks. He stepped out between two of the stone columns and barred their path.

  They were startled out of their wits, but Rumo’s own surprise was not inconsiderable, because the creatures bore no resemblance to any he had ever encountered before.

  The taller of the two barely came up to his chest. Scrawny, with albino-white skin and two small horns, it was curiously attired and armed with a thin wooden spear.

  The other figure looked even more peculiar. Half as tall as its companion, it had the head and pincers of a crab and legs like a chicken. As if that were not enough, it wore a funnel on its head and was dressed in a small barrel.

  Rumo was at a loss for words.

  ‘A Wolperting!’ gasped the taller of the two. It levelled its trembling spear at Rumo.

  ‘Correct,’ said Rumo. ‘I’m a Wolperting. Who are you?’

  ‘My name is Yukobak,’ said the taller of the two.

  ‘And I’m Ribble,’ said the other.

  ‘Where have you come from and where are you going?’

  ‘We’ve come from Hel,’ said Yukobak.

  ‘And we’re going to Overworld,’ said Ribble. ‘On behalf of Urs of the Snows.’

  They both pointed upwards.

  Rumo was genuinely staggered by this. ‘Urs?’ he said. ‘You know Urs of the Snows?’

  The Helling and the Homunculus

  Yukobak and Ribble were representatives of the two most numerous ethnic groups in Hel. Yukobak was an upper-class Helling distantly related to the royal Gornabs and, thus, a member of the city’s aristocracy. Ribble, by contrast, belonged to the lowest caste. He was a Homunculus, one of those alchemically created hybrids that formed the underclass of Hellian society.

  Yukobak’s was a far-flung family that wielded considerable political influence in the city, maintained contact with its political and military leaders, and boasted several members of the royal household. He had enjoyed an education reserved for very few Hellings and was expected some day to occupy a senior position at court.

  Ribble had no family at all. Like every Homunculus, he possessed neither father nor mother but had emerged from the alchemical brew known to the inhabitants of Hel as Mothersoup. The Homunculi were made to perform the city’s most menial tasks. They had no rights and were fair game, so killing a Homunculus was not a crime. To anyone from Hel, Yukobak and Ribble were as far apart socially as any two individuals could be.

  Ribble had long been Yukobak’s personal servant. He had escorted him to school and received the same education as his master. He was his conversational equal, his foremost adviser on matters of vital importance and – not that anyone else knew it – his true and faithful friend.

  To the outside world they carefully preserved a semblance of the master-servant relationship, because friendships between Hellings and Homunculi were one of the city’s greatest taboos and the truth would have cost Ribble his head.

  When the two friends were alone together they became dangerous revolutionaries and enemies of the state. They questioned the omnipotence and infallibility of the Gornabs; they regarded the performances in the Theatre of Death as barbaric, not artistic; they loathed the city’s depressing architecture and atmosphere; and they resented the alchemists’ suppression of the arts. Yukobak secretly painted little pictures of Hel going up in flames; Ribble wrote subversive poems that ridiculed the king. They proudly showed each other their works, only to hide them in alarm immediately afterwards. They were not only rebels, therefore, but artists and philosophers, libertarians and visionaries. There was no burning issue they had not already subjected to merciless discussion. Had the Red Prophecy been correctly interpreted? Was Hel really the centre of Netherworld? Was it right to raid cities on the surface and enslave their inhabitants? Was it really true that the sunlight in Overworld reduced you to ashes if you exposed yourself to it for too long, or that the air up there slowly poisoned you?

  Ribble had never taken it for granted that his species should be treated like domesticated animals, beaten and killed. He had conformed for want of any alternative and was grateful to providence for having granted him the pleasure and privilege of being Yukobak’s servant. This did not, however, alter the fact that he had dreamt throughout his life of escaping from Hel.

  Yukobak was also revolted by the conditions prevailing there. It embarrassed him to see the ignorant and condescending way his caste treated the city’s other inhabitants, and he was appalled by the prospect of the political career with which his family was threatening him. Although he had every conceivable luxury and amenity at his disposal he dreamt of the light, of the sky, of clouds and rain, of wind and water. He dreamt of cities where night fell and day broke in turn, of outlandish creatures and all the marvels of which he and Ribble had read in the alchemists’ reports. Together they fanned the flames of their yearning for Overworld, which grew stronger every day.

  But the fears implanted in them at school and their memories of all the tales they’d heard about Icemagogs and Nurns, huge vampiric moths and Deadwood Apes, were too deep-seated. The route to Overworld was too dangerous, and besides, it was forbidden to go there without official authorisation.

  Yes, it could be said that Yukobak and Ribble were cowards and remained so – until the day they underwent their crucial experience. The event that changed their lives had occurred in the Theatre of Death, when Urs of the Snows fought his first fight.

  Yukobak had detested the theatre even as a child. He’d felt sick the very first time his parents had compelled him to watch a fight, and little had changed over the years. He and Ribble thought it barbarous to slaughter defenceless slaves for fun, but they regularly attended these social functions because they hadn’t the courage to rebel.

  Even the fight between Ushan DeLucca and Roboglob, the celebrated gladiator, had made them think twice, but it had all been over too fast. Suddenly, one of the theatre’s so-called favourites was lying dead in the sand, vanquished by a slave. Yukobak and Ribble had spent a long time discussing – not without relish – this novel and unprecedented occurrence.

  Then came the fight between Urs of the Snows and Evel the Octopus. It was the most exciting duel Yukobak and
Ribble had ever witnessed. The far smaller Wolperting had not only refused to die, he had even refused to kill his opponent by giving him the coup de grâce. That was revolutionary! If Yukobak and Ribble had ever seen a real live hero, it was Urs of the Snows. His name had spread like wildfire after the fight and they’d sat up all night, talking their heads off. It was a sign! That prisoner, who had defied the whole Hellian system, was their pointer to Overworld, their signal to risk an escape at last.

  Yukobak and Ribble decided to go via Wolperting because it contained the nearest entrance to Overworld. The entrance was open, too. They knew from their lessons at school that an Urban Flytrap was always harvested in two stages. First, the entrance was opened and the inhabitants were anaesthetised and carried off, the whole army being required to cart them away. Later, some of the Hellian troops returned to the city to eliminate all traces of its former occupants, carry out various architectural improvements and close the entrance once more – for many, many years, possibly for decades.

  ‘If we don’t go now,’ Ribble had said, ‘we never will.’

  Rala’s prayer

  ‘It’ll pass, it’ll soon be over. It’ll pass, it’ll soon be over.’ That was the optimistic formula Rala had recited again and again in recent days, and her prediction had always come true. That hope was all she had to cling to when her body was once more racked with pain, cold or fever. And she had learnt to cherish the intervening periods when her organism felt normal and merely healthy.

  She had clung to that formula even when the major assault on her liver was launched and a monstrous sensation of nausea threatened to overcome her. At first she’d simply felt a little dizzy, but then the dizziness became a headlong plunge down a bottomless shaft and everything had rotated so fast that she felt she was being turned inside out.

  ‘It’ll pass,’ she’d told herself, ‘it’ll soon be over.’ But there was no relief for a long, long time. The nauseous sensation became so intense that for one brief moment she wished she were dead. But then she clung once more to her only remaining thought: ‘It’ll pass, it’ll soon be over.’

  And at some point, quite suddenly, it was over yet again. Nothing could be worse than that, she thought. She now believed herself proof against anything.

  The face of fear

  The assault on Rala’s brain was launched the next day. It began, almost innocuously, with a few disconcerting sensations, a strangely restless feeling and some unusual noises. Then her restlessness intensified. The noises became more piercing, the sensations more and more peculiar. Rala could taste sounds and hear colours. Cacophonous music flavoured like bitter almonds filled her head, familiar images and scenes arose and danced around her. She was assailed by poignant memories of Tallon, of Wolperting, of Rolv and Rumo. Then everything went blurred and dissolved into a multicoloured mishmash, like reflections in turbulent water. The familiar figures became cavorting spirits, transparent beings devoid of flesh and bone. They interwove themselves in the same way as Rala’s thoughts became entangled and jumbled together, until no idea or syllable was in its proper place.

  She tried in vain to remember where and who she was, but her mind seemed to be lashed to a gyrating wheel from which her thoughts spun off in all directions until nothing remained inside her but chill darkness, a lifeless void bereft of hope. And from the depths of that abyss, to the accompaniment of discordant music, there rose a menacing sight: a creature compounded of rage and insanity. Not that Rala knew it, this phantom was the Gornab of Gornabs, the collective evil and ugliness of the Hellian royal family. One face superimposed itself on another to form a single hideous mask too frightful to contemplate – a horrific gargoyle that would have shattered any mirror. It grew steadily bigger, drew nearer and nearer, until Rala was struck by the last and most terrible thought of all: that this might be her face, the face of her own fear.

  That was the moment when her self-control failed and she started to scream. Had she resisted for an instant longer, had she not cried out and admitted defeat, she would have lost her mind and followed the demented king into his crazy, topsy-turvy realm.

  Rala had preserved her sanity, but her resistance was broken. She was now prepared to start dying.

  Six against one

  Silence descended on the Theatre of Death as Rolv entered the arena. All heads turned in his direction. This Wolperting looked considerably more pugnacious than the last. There was an ominous glint in his narrowed, terrier-like eyes and his lithe gait was that of a warrior in peak condition. This promised to be an exciting spectacle. All that could be heard were a few isolated coughs and the sound of swordsmen sharpening their blades on whetstones behind the scenes.

  Gornab was in a bad mood. The last fight had been so poor that he’d lain awake all night with a headache, listening to voices that commanded him to rip out Friftar’s throat with his teeth.

  ‘Sith better be a doog testcon,’ he snarled at his chief adviser. ‘Wiseother you may fnid yousrelf down in the narea with a srowd in your hnad!’

  Friftar strove to take this threat calmly.

  ‘I can assure Your Majesty that this will be an excellent contest. I have put together a really unique combination of warriors.’

  He clapped his hands, the gong sounded, and six previously invisible doors opened in the wall enclosing the arena. From them emerged six heavily armed gladiators.

  The first was a Montanic Giant armed with a huge golden axe.

  The second a Vulphead with a trident.

  The third a Bluddum with ball and chain.

  The fourth a Hoggling with two swords.

  The fifth an Osirian with a scythe.

  The sixth a Greenwood Dwarf with a spear.

  Rolv, standing in the middle of the arena, turned slowly on the spot and inspected his adversaries. He himself was armed with four knives stuck in his belt.

  He’d had ample time to reflect on his situation since regaining consciousness in Hel. As he saw it, he was in a fearsome and dangerous place, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d escaped from a hopeless predicament. The worst thing was, he didn’t know Rala’s whereabouts. He had no doubt that she was still alive because he would have sensed something as final as his twin sister’s death, so his most urgent task was to find and release her. Rolv’s strategy was simple in the extreme: until he got an opportunity to do so he would defeat anyone who came up against him.

  He continued to turn on the spot, seeking out his first victim. The sword? No. The scythe? No. The spear? Yes, it would surely be wisest to eliminate the weapon that could settle his hash at long range. That meant the Greenwood Dwarf.

  The White Fire

  All at once Rolv’s body was transfixed by a sound inaudible to anyone else in the theatre. It was as if someone had plucked a taut string that ran right through him from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. The sound was shrill and high-pitched, like a cry of pain. Although Rolv had never experienced anything of the kind before, he instantly knew what it meant: someone, somewhere, at this very moment, was doing something terrible to Rala. His whole body bent like a bow. He threw back his head and let the cry escape. It emerged in the form of a protracted howl that silenced the last whispers in the auditorium and made his encircling opponents’ hair stand on end.

  With that wolflike cry Rolv bade farewell to this world and entered the realm of the White Fire. He growled softly and bared his teeth, gripped one of his knives between them and held another two at the ready, one with the blade facing upwards, one downwards.

  The audience had already watched several Wolpertings fight in the Theatre of Death. Discounting two elderly specimens, they had all acquitted themselves bravely and defeated their opponents with ease. But what this Wolperting accomplished with his knives surpassed anything they had ever seen before. He wasn’t merely fast; he seemed to be in several places at once. His knives went whistling through the air, and before the audience knew it they had found their mark in throats and chests, between eyes and shoulde
r blades. Rolv rampaged across the arena like a wild wind, sending up clouds of yellow dust, and wherever he went blood gushed like a fountain. When Rolv of the Forest fought his first duel in the theatre, time seemed to stand still.

  Then the dance of death ceased as abruptly as it had begun and Rolv stood panting in the centre of the arena, as besmirched with blood as a painter with paint after an artistic frenzy. He was still in his other world, in the midst of the White Fire, but his opponents lay dead on the sand. The spectators rose to their feet and broke into a storm of applause such as the Theatre of Death had never heard before.

  Gnamificent and tanfastic

  Gornab jumped up and down on his throne like a demented gorilla, pounding the cushions with his fists and screeching with delight.

  ‘Gnamificent! Gnamificent!’ he cried. ‘Tath was tanfastic! Tath Tingerwolp is a ratist, a negius! I vole him! Gnamificent! Gnamificent!’

  ‘Yes,’ Friftar translated mechanically, ‘it was fantastic. That Wolperting is a genius in the art of death. I shall put him down on the favourites’ list.’

  Gornab suddenly quietened. He stopped jumping up and down and pounding the cushions. His face went blank. Then his demented grin returned in an even more devilish form. Friftar knew what this signified. Gornab the Ninety-Ninth was listening to the ninety-eight Gornabs inside him, and soon, very soon, he would turn into a rapacious wild beast.

  This was what Friftar had always dreaded most: that the king would have one of his fits in the theatre. It wasn’t that Friftar would have minded its being witnessed by almost the whole of Hel. The trouble was, the only occupants of the royal box were the king and himself, and he would be unable to step aside and let Gornab work off his demented rage on someone else. He felt as if he were shut up in a cage with a savage lion whose tail – to make matters worse – he had just trodden on.

 
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