Rumo and his miraculous.., p.51
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.51

           Walter Moers
 

  A thin thread of saliva trickled from the corner of Gornab’s mouth as he slowly wagged his head to and fro. His lips mouthed inaudible words, presumably in response to the commands of the Gornabs inside him. Friftar sighed. He had naturally allowed for this worst of all scenarios, but it was a humiliating business. He sidled behind Gornab and hid beneath the throne like a child sheltering from an imminent earthquake.

  He had hardly taken cover when Gornab’s fit of manic fury erupted with unprecedented violence. An apelike screech rang through the theatre as the king leapt on to the protective balustrade, seized the nearest guard – a full-grown Bluddum nearly twice his size – by the throat and yanked him into the box with one mighty jerk. What happened next was comparable only to what might have occurred if some careless visitor to a zoo had fallen into a wild beast’s enclosure by mistake. Blood spurted in all directions and the audience bellowed with jubilation. There had been a lot of surreptitious gossip about Gornab’s convulsions, but no one outside the court had ever witnessed one before. This paroxysm surpassed everyone’s expectations. The dwarfish king persevered until he had extinguished every last spark of life in the soldier’s body. Then he lay down on the corpse and fell into a deep sleep.

  Friftar crawled out from under the throne. Beside themselves with delight, the spectators craned their necks for a look at the bloodstained royal lunatic. Gornab’s chief adviser bent over his snoring form. He couldn’t help grinning. Fate was forever surprising him with its whimsical ways.

  The hostages

  Yukobak and Ribble walked on ahead. Rumo, ever vigilant and at pains to intimidate his two prisoners, followed them with his sword drawn.

  ‘I suppose you realise you’re sending us to certain death,’ said Yukobak.

  Rumo said nothing.

  ‘They’ll throw me back into the Mothersoup,’ Ribble said plaintively, ‘and Yukobak will be sent to the Theatre of Death. We’ve committed high treason.’

  ‘Where’s Rala?’ Rumo demanded sternly.

  Yukobak groaned. ‘We’ve already told you umpteen times. We don’t know this Rala or any other Wolpertings. We saw Urs of the Snows at the theatre, that’s all.’

  ‘Tell me some more about the theatre!’ Rumo commanded.

  ‘What, again?’ Yukobak protested. ‘You already know all there is to know! You know more about Hel and Urban Flytraps and the whole of Netherworld than most of its inhabitants, yet still you insist on dragging us back there. It’s tantamount to a death warrant!’

  ‘I’m merciless by nature,’ said Rumo.

  Ribble paused abruptly and turned round.

  ‘Know something?’ he said. ‘I don’t think you’re half as tough a nut as you make out. You’re all right.’

  Rumo and Yukobak halted too.

  ‘Really?’ said Rumo. ‘What gives you that idea?’

  ‘If you were really cold-blooded you’d have killed one of us to impress the other. Why guard two prisoners when one would do? A really tough nut would have acted differently.’

  ‘Ribble!’ cried Yukobak. ‘Don’t put daft ideas into his head!’

  Rumo seemed to be lost in thought. ‘Yukobak, Ribble,’ he said suddenly, ‘I’d like to introduce two friends of mine.’

  Yukobak and Ribble stared at each other. There was no one in sight but themselves and the Wolperting.

  Rumo held out his sword. They shrank back.

  ‘Don’t be afraid.’ He indicated the two halves of the blade. ‘These are my friends. This one is Krindle and that’s Dandelion.’

  ‘Wrong way round,’ Dandelion protested.

  Yukobak and Ribble drew closer together. The Wolperting might not be vicious, but he was obviously insane.

  ‘Pleased to meet you,’ said Dandelion.

  ‘Let’s kill them!’ growled Krindle.

  ‘They can hear you,’ Rumo told his prisoners, ‘but you can’t hear them. Only I can. In my head, understand?’

  ‘Absolutely!’ Yukobak nodded vigorously.

  ‘In your head!’ Ribble chimed in.

  ‘They’re dangerous Demonic Warriors,’ said Rumo. ‘The fiercest of their race.’

  ‘That’s not true!’ Dandelion protested again.

  ‘Yes, it is!’ said Krindle.

  ‘Their brains were smelted into these blades. They speak to me.’ Rumo held the sword to his ear and listened, seemingly lost in thought.

  Yukobak and Ribble went on nodding eagerly.

  ‘Yes,’ Rumo said with a faraway look in his eyes, ‘they’re unpredictable fellows. Bloodthirsty. Implacable. I’m under their spell. I have to do all they say. It’s an ancient curse.’

  ‘We understand,’ said Ribble. ‘A curse.’

  ‘If it were up to me I’d let you go at once. As things stand, however, I’ll have to ask Krindle and Dandelion first.’

  ‘But of course!’

  ‘That goes without saying!’

  Rumo muttered something unintelligible to the sword, then held it to his ear again. He listened intently and nodded several times. At length he lowered it.

  ‘Krindle and Dandelion say I must compel one of you to devour the other unless you obey,’ said Rumo.

  ‘That’s just not true!’ cried Dandelion.

  ‘I didn’t actually say that,’ said Krindle, ‘but it sounds like me.’

  Rumo shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’m sorry, but you must accompany me to Hel. The curse, you understand …’

  Yukobak and Ribble nodded again.

  ‘Very well,’ said Yukobak, ‘we’ll take you to Hel, but it’s pointless. There are sentries guarding every route into the city, and they’d arrest a Wolperting like you on sight. We had to forge some official documents just to get out of the place. You’ll be going to your own execution. And ours.’

  ‘I’ll worry about those problems when we get there,’ Rumo decreed.

  ‘Hey!’ Ribble said suddenly. ‘There is one way into Hel that isn’t guarded.’

  ‘Really?’ said Rumo.

  ‘Yes. I know a way through the sewers that leads straight to the heart of Hel. Straight to the Theatre of Death.’

  ‘Good,’ said Rumo. ‘Then you’ll remain my prisoners until you’ve guided me through the sewers to the theatre.’

  Yukobak glared at Ribble.

  ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ Ribble told him. ‘He was such a skilful interrogator, how could I help it?’

  Ribble’s story

  There had been a time in Ribble’s life when Yukobak played no part in it. Quite a long time, in fact, because between his birth and the beginning of his domestic service lay a period which the average Homunculus would have found quite eventful enough.

  Like any newborn Homunculus, Ribble had felt extremely confused on emerging from the alchemical Mothersoup. His was a bewilderment no one could have felt unless he’d been pitched out into the world as an adult. Homunculi had a harder time of it than anyone else.

  The soup boiled, a few extremities and organs from the most diverse life forms became fused together, and another Homunculus emerged from the cauldron. No crawling, no breastfeeding, no teething: Homunculi came into the world full-grown and had to manage as best they could. Their first experience tended to be a kick up the backside from one of the unsympathetic soldiers whose job it was to speed these new, underprivileged citizens down the ramp from the cauldron and into everyday life. It was like that with Ribble. Someone shoved him so hard that he tumbled down the ramp and found himself amid the urban bustle of Hel, where new citizens were promptly inspected and their aptitudes assessed.

  Hemmed in on all sides by Hellings, mercenaries and other Homunculi, Ribble was grabbed, turned round and pawed by rough hands. It was there at the foot of the ramp that newborn slaves were appraised and assigned various occupations, and there that their fate was decided.

  ‘Crab’s pincers, eyes on stalks, amphibian, likes water. He’ll make a tunneller. Off to the sewers with him!’ said someone. Ribble didn’t understand a word because,
although Homunculi came into the world full-grown, they still had to acquire the power of speech. He was led away and consigned to the sewers of Hel.

  If someone had compiled a list of all the possible occupations in Hel and arranged them in order of status, the one at the very top would have been ‘king’ and the one at the very bottom ‘tunneller’. Ribble spent the first few years of his life keeping the walls of the underground cave system that had been converted into a sewer free from vermin and carriers of disease. Saponic Leeches, Oilsnakes, Dungworms, Suckerfoot Spiders, Bacteriomorphs, Plague Frogs, Trogloticks, Speleovampires – those were the true masters of this dark, damp domain, and their dissemination had to be kept within bounds if they weren’t some day to take over Hel itself. Tunnelling was not only an unhealthy occupation but probably the most dangerous in the whole of Netherworld. Large or small, nearly all the creatures in the sewers were dangerous in one way or another: venomous, infectious, vicious, vampiric, or all four combined. A tunneller’s average lifespan was a year, but there were many who, on their very first day, disappeared into the convoluted maze of tunnels for ever.

  Ribble had been sent into this underground world armed with a long rope and a rusty trident, and he was probably more surprised than anyone when he made it back to the surface after his first day’s work. He had waded knee-deep through stinking brown water and speared all the Dungworms and Suckerfoot Spiders he’d spotted by the ghostly light of the jellyfish torches, and he thanked his lucky stars that none of those vermin had been larger than a dog. It was on that first day of his life that Ribble found the funnel and barrel among some rubbish and chose them as his armour, his protection against the dangers of this most subterranean of all worlds. They saved his life so often that he refused to be parted from them later on, when he could have afforded some decent clothes.

  The underground channels, which had come into being naturally in primeval times, formed an extremely intricate tunnel system resembling the interior of a sponge – in fact, many alchemists believed that the whole area beneath Hel was a gigantic fossilised sponge. Only someone with an exceptionally good memory and bump of direction could find his way around, and colleagues of Ribble’s disappeared every day – not that anyone mourned them. They may either have been drowned by a flash flood or dispatched by some denizen of the sewers that was bigger than a dog. Opportunities for dying down there were not only many and varied but highly unpleasant.

  Ribble’s professional aptitudes were much admired. Not only did he have an excellent bump of direction, but his skill in skewering vermin with the trident was also exceptional, so he might well have remained down there until overtaken by a tunneller’s death. Instead, he saved the life of an aristocratic young Helling who had accidentally fallen into the sewers down a waste-disposal shaft and nearly been devoured by some Bloodrats. Ribble was rewarded by being returned to civilisation. Thus ended his harsh existence in the sewers of Hel and thus began his new life at Yukobak’s side.

  ‘All right,’ said Yukobak when they at last moved on, ‘so we’re doing you one favour after another. We’ve given away all our nation’s secrets and we’re trying – at the risk of our own lives – to smuggle you into Hel. Now I think it’s your turn.’

  ‘To do what?’

  ‘To talk. We’ve still got a long way to go and I’d be interested to hear what prompted you to go to Hel – in defiance of all common sense. We’d like at least to know what we’re risking our lives for. Who is this mysterious Rala?’

  ‘But I’m not good with words,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Just leave out the boring parts,’ Ribble advised. ‘Stick to the exciting bits.’

  The Bear God

  Rala was ready to die. The pain, the chills, the fever, the nausea – all those she could have borne, but not this hideous, demented face. Whoever it was out there, he had won. No one could defeat an opponent who had forged an alliance with insanity. Rala simply wanted to fall into a dreamless sleep free from pain and fear.

  ‘Rala?’

  She froze. Who had called her name? Was it that voice from outside again?

  ‘Don’t be frightened, Rala, it’s only me.’

  Rala’s inner eye could see nothing but utter darkness.

  ‘I’ve come a long way.’

  Something was emerging from the darkness.

  ‘Yes, I’ve come a very long way, little daughter.’ A massive black form emerged from the gloom and Rala could now see that it was Tallon. Tallon the Claw, formerly the Wild Bear God, her foster-father and fellow hunter.

  ‘Hello, Rala,’ said Tallon.

  ‘Hello, Tallon. I thought you were dead,’ said Rala. After all that had happened lately, nothing that went on in her head surprised her.

  ‘I hardly dare to say this,’ said Tallon, ‘but I can’t afford to beat about the bush under present circumstances, so tell me, my girl: Is what I see here really the way it looks?’

  ‘What does it look like?’

  ‘It looks as if you’re trying to die.’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘You can’t be serious!’

  ‘I certainly am.’

  ‘Look, far be it from me to meddle in your affairs, but, well … being dead myself, I can tell you it’s nothing to write home about.’

  ‘I can’t stand it any more,’ Rala whispered.

  ‘I see. Hm. The pain, you mean?’

  ‘The pain I can take.’

  ‘Something worse than pain?’

  ‘Horror, Tallon. Fear.’

  ‘I know, it’s hard to endure.’

  ‘Did you come back from the dead to tell me that?’

  ‘What? Yes. No! Er … Now you’ve made me lose my thread.’

  ‘Get to the point, Tallon! Then I can die and we can be together.’

  ‘That’s not a good idea. I died too soon – a stupid mistake. You should learn from my mistakes.’

  ‘It wasn’t a mistake. You couldn’t help it.’

  ‘I could have run away when that stick flew towards me,’ said the bear.

  ‘Listen, Tallon. I can’t take it any more. I’m tired and frightened. I want to sleep.’

  ‘So you already said. Do you remember what we used to do in the woods?’

  ‘Hunt, you mean?’

  ‘Precisely. We used to hunt rabbits. It was fun.’

  ‘Not for the rabbits.’

  ‘True, but do you remember what the rabbits did?’

  ‘They ran.’

  ‘Correct. And how did they run?’

  ‘They zigzagged from one hiding place to another.’

  ‘That’s exactly what they did, the little devils! Remember how often they got away?’

  ‘Often.’

  ‘Yes, my girl, very often.’ Tallon grinned. ‘See what I’m getting at?’

  ‘You mean I should run away?’

  ‘That’s my Rala! You’re a clever girl. Let’s run the way we used to in the old days – in the woods.’ Tallon gave Rala a look that almost made her laugh.

  ‘How can I? I can’t move, I’m trapped inside a machine.’

  ‘Know the best part of being dead?’ Tallon asked in a whisper.

  ‘No. The fact that everything’s over, I suppose.’

  ‘I said you don’t have the first idea about dying. No, just the opposite: that everything isn’t over. That it’s just beginning, my girl! That your spirit is free – free from your brain, because the brain is really just a prison full of cares and fears. When you die your spirit slips through the bars of that prison and out into the open, and you realise what freedom really is.’

  ‘Get to the point, Tallon.’

  ‘I can teach you to release your spirit.’

  ‘You can?’

  ‘Well, not in such a way that it roams the universe like mine and can see the rings of Saturn and so on. No, not that, because for that you’d have to be really dead, and that we don’t want. Listen! I can show you how your spirit can release itself from your brain and roam around free
ly inside your body. Yes, that I can do.’

  Rala laughed. ‘I know you aren’t really here. I know this is just a wonderful dream designed to make me forget my torments, but go on!’

  ‘We’ve no time to argue or I’d talk you out of that idea, so all I’ll say on the subject is this: What the living call dreams aren’t dreams at all. But come now!’ Tallon extended one of his huge paws.

  Rala hesitated.

  ‘Come on!’ Tallon growled. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

  Ticktock’s question

  As so often of late, General Ticktock was in the best of spirits. Today he would embark on the really interesting part of his work: the interrogation. He had broken Rala’s spirit. What a scream she’d uttered! No, not just a scream, a fanfare that signalled the commencement of a new chapter in their relationship. Today he would start to converse with her and, in her company, take up the trail of death. Today she would begin to die in earnest.

  This was a great moment. He must not profane its uniqueness by talking any old drivel. His opening question would be exceptionally important, and he had pondered it for a long time. It had to be tender and sympathetic, and expressive of his passion for her. A task for a poet, really, so General Ticktock was extremely proud that he himself had thought of the appropriate words.

  Going up to the Metal Maiden with slow, reverent steps, he bent down and whispered, ‘Are you enjoying this [tick] as much as I am?’

  Rala didn’t answer. Of course, she was shy, surprised by his romantic enquiry and probably searching for a reply in kind. He would have to give her a little time.

  He waited.

  Perhaps she hadn’t fully understood. Had he spoken too softly? After a few minutes he repeated the question, a trifle more distinctly this time.

 

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