Chapter 2

Endangered species

There are more than a mere six senses. Not all of them operate in the four dimensions of time and space most of us are used to. These senses were now available to the scattered motes of energy drifting in limbo. Scattered motes that in some way were looking down on the only surviving physical part of herself. In a jar. The thaumatic fluid sustained a kind of suspended life in the cells. Around the half-living part clung another morphic resonance--her wily foul-mouthed familiar.

She searched. Here, in the neverness, she used some of her vitality to push things in a certain direction. She needed a body to finish the job. He would do. And although communications might be difficult, there was always the parrot.

The mind is a strange creature. When it is unfettered from the normal demands of running a great big clumsy body, it can sometimes go a-wandering down paths you thought it had forgotten. Squigs lay unconscious, on his back in a boat-wagon, in the impossibly distant watery world that the inhabitants call "Zoar." His mind, however, was back in a London council flat.

Looking back. Trying to work out how a boy with a Zulu mother and an English-peer father had ended up doing something as mindblowingly crazy as alchemy. Dispassionately the mind concluded he'd done it for three reasons. Having stumbled on the faculty, it had struck him as funny. Then they'd made it clear they didn't want him. Like the public school he'd been forced to go to . . . That had got his determination up. And finally, considering the mess he was in, because he was really stupid.

Shreds of conversation reached Squigs.

". . . honestly Pa. I swear I hadn't even hit him yet."

A mumbled comment followed, in a pitch more suited to tectonic movement. Squigs couldn't hear the words, but there was no mistaking the disbelief.

"Well, all right. I did once or twice. Just a couple of slaps to see if he'd come round," she said, plainly defensive.

Again the rumble. Something about making sure the shaver stayed unconscious for a week or two.

Squigs opened his eyes. Struggled manfully to focus. The effort cost his aching head too much. He closed them again. Concentrated on other sensory input instead. He was lying on something soft. The generally pleasant new-mown hay smell was overlaid with several others. Fish for starters. Constant in the background were clicking, rustling waves of sound, rather like a distant knitting marathon. The honking sound of wild geese in flight interrupted the persistent, far closer song of the mosquitoes.

He was still contemplating all this when he found he was being shaken so hard that his teeth rattled. His eyelids opened and closed like a kewpie doll's with each violent jerk. His brain lurched, trying to make sense of the stroboscopic view of the spinning out-of-focus room. "See, Pa. His eyes are opening already. Shall I shake him again?"

At the thought of another such shaking Squigs' nervous system decided it was a case of cooperate or bust. With a supreme effort he forced his eyes to open and to focus.

The shaker was recognizable. The red-haired girl who had sworn at him on arrival. On closer viewing, without quite so much hippo in the way, she was pretty. Very pretty. Long, dark lashes framing gentian-blue eyes. High cheekbones. A peaches and cream complexion, a little retroussé nose and a distinct dimple in her cheek. The green outfit she wore fitted like a one-size-too-small glove. It emphasized her shape with such precision that it left little to the imagination.

Squigs groaned, for reasons other than the pain. If she'd looked like the back end of a bus accident he'd have been much happier. Squigs had long ago discovered that he had a violent allergy to pretty girls. They made him break out . . . in a rash of stuttering foot-in-mouth incidents, in clumsy and uncontrolled movements, usually including falling over his large feet, when they weren't in his mouth.

Even 4'11'' gorilla wrestlers like this one were a danger.

"Just what do you mean by that groan, you overgrown beanpole? I hope it's an apology," she said, still lifting him one-handedly by the shirt-front. "I was supposed to be out fetching a hero, not wasting my time on a walking skellington like you."

"Leave him alone, Kathleen. Who knows? Maybe he is your hero. As they say, 'it's an ill wind that doesn't blow you a cloud with a silver lining,'" the earth-rumble voice said from the background. Into Squigs' vision stumped the sort of father who makes those who merely wield shot-guns look like harmless kittens. This guy would need no kind of weapon. He'd just pull you apart like an overcooked chicken. He was also dressed in tight-fitting green leather . . . but it didn't seem make him look sexy, just terrifying. A hand that could easily have enveloped Faye Wray held a large mug of something steaming, filling the air with spice and citrus scents.

She looked scornfully at him. "Come on, Pa. I know you want to get me married off, and out of the house, but this one couldn't fight his way out of a brown paper bag. Anyway, the wise-woman's prophecy said I would find my true love in a hero both tall and nobly-born. A man who would fall for me immediately, a fighter the men of Senaputt would fall before, or flee from. A man who would sacrifice himself for me. I'm going to find me a real man, not an over-stretched, limp dishrag like this one."

Her father chuckled, and pushed the affronted and bewildered Squigs back onto the pillows. "Relax, stranger. She's actually twice as bad as she seems. Got a rough tongue, when she gets her claws in to you, but, believe me, her bark is worse than her bite."

Thinking about that left Squigs with disturbing zoophilist visions.

"Here, drink this," said man-mountain. "It'll help for the pain."

Gratefully Squigs reached out to take it. And then realized that he was not going to be able to. His right arm ended in a tourniquetted lump. A lump, somewhat short of where his hand ought to be. He hadn't come through that last incident quite as unscathed as he'd thought. Perhaps it had taken more than a hippo-belch to fell him. It might have been lack of blood too. He slipped back into unconsciousness briefly.

Something wet slopped into his face. Water dripped off his nose and chin, and he tried weakly to wipe it away.

"For Ziklevieson's sake, Kate!" chided the huge man. "Leave the boy in peace. Here, son. Drink this now." Using his left hand Squigs managed to take the huge, steaming mug. He took a cautious sip. And then tried to deal with the explosion of spice and hot, over-proof alcohol in his mouth. By the feel of it, most of the explosive force had been channeled up through the roof of his mouth, and had blown off the top of his head.

"Good, eh!" The hulking black-haired man peered intently at him from under a set of eyebrows like old moldy thatch.

Squigs managed a strangled affirmative, as his eyeballs steamed.

"Sucker. Guinea pig. Pa's watching to see if you're going to die, or turn into a purple toad before he tries it himself," said the girl derisively.

"Now, that's just not true, Kathleen. I was just concerned about the boy's health," said the hulking man, in slightly injured tones, "But, to prove there's nothing amiss with my brew, I'll now be forced to drink some meself." This was said with a broad wink to Squigs, which the girl couldn't see.

She snorted. "Any excuse will do."

Her father sighed, as he poured himself an even larger mug full from a steaming kettle on a hob in the centre of the high-roofed thatch beehive. "Take my advice, boy. If you ever have daughters . . . send 'em to boarding-school when they're twelve. When the school throws them out, marry them off as quick as possible. They've got all this pent-up nagging ready for some poor sap, and in the meanwhile, they let it leak out onto their poor, feeble old fathers. Still, you know what they say, 'You can choose your friends, but their blood isn't thicker than water.'"

She snorted again, as Squigs tried to figure that one out. "You," she said to her father, "never listen to a word I say anyway. You only want me out the way because you've been making eyes at Mikki Kalloran's widow. And if you'd sent me off to boarding-school I'd have run away. I don't even know why I even had to go to school at all. You never did! Anyway, you never would've sent me away. Who would've looked after you after Mum died?"

She poured herself a mug of the brew too, and tossed it off in a fashion that could only elicit admiration from Squigs, whose previous alcoholic feats had included once down-downing half . . . of a half of shandy. The numbness which had started in his nose, had by now spread to his other extremities, including the handless arm. He was rapidly approaching the point where statements about being caught short-handed would be considered hilariously funny.

Squigs soon felt as if he was bathing in a sea of goodwill, which simply improved with every fiery mouthful. Besides it didn't seem quite so like drinking lava any more. In fact the stuff was wonderful. Just wonderful. Life was wonderful too. So what if he'd seen all his peers killed in horrible ways, and had had to flee for his life to an alien world. So what if his right hand had been cut off.

The alcoholic fog of well-being however didn't quite overwhelm his one solitary island of resentment. This stunning girl, and she looked even more beautiful with the second mug full of brew that that really good guy had poured for him, didn't think he could be a hero. He completely forgot his earlier resolution to keep his ears open and his big mouth shut.

"I shay." He beamed at them, delighted to have managed such a complicated statement. With this great success achieved, he set off to greater heights. "Whash d'you need a bloody hero for?"

"It's the dragons, me boy. Great, terrible worms ninety feet long. Dreadful winged fire-breathin' beasties. They're armored with diamond-hard scales. They've tails that'd smash a house to brick-dust. And their talons, why, they're just awful: great, cruel scimitars with razor edges, and needle points too. And they have vast maws of huge, sharp pointed teeth," said the man-mountain with a sigh.

Squigs stared owlishly at him. He was not as taken aback as most folk would have been. As a student-alchemist he had come across some very bizarre things, including dragon's teeth. Ormandine was the hardest substance known to Alchemy.

Squigs also knew his Arthurian legends well enough to know what was expected. "You want me to resh, resh . . . shave your daughter from the dragonsh?"

His host looked at him, puzzled. Then looked at the second empty pint mug in Squigs' hand and nodded knowingly. "No, boyo. Not my daughter! It's the dragons that need to be saved."

Squigs looked at the fair Kathleen. Was there ever such a vision of female pulchritude? Both of her looked so beautiful, it fairly took his breath away. No wonder even the dragons had fallen for her! He staggered manfully to his size 14 feet. With an air of great nobility, or as much nobility as you can muster when you're swaying like a fir-sapling in a hurricane, he said. "I'll do it! I'll shave the dragonsh from your daughter!" He turned, and, by a triumph of pure mathematics over gravity, managed to go down on one knee before the middle one of the three fair damsels he could now see. "Will you marry me?"

At which point he fell over before she could hit him.

He was aware of Wagnerian laughter. And of an irate voice saying, "It's not funny, Pa." He found himself being pulled to his feet, and put back onto the couch.

"It's not that easy, me boyo. My Kathleen's not the only danger they're in. It's these damned poachers." He sighed gustily. "It's getting so an honest draconnier like mysel' can't find a beast to hunt for love or money."

Squigs' brains were definitely entirely awash by this stage, because he said "I'll shtop 'em. Jus' shee if I don't."

"Bravely spoken boy," said his host, refilling the swaying mug with difficulty. "Well, you may as well have a go. After all, you know what they say, 'Needs must clutch at straws when the devil drives.'"

The mug was plucked away from Squigs by the red-haired woman. She raised her eyes to heaven, and shook her head at him. "No more for you. And I think you should quit too, Pa. I'm ashamed of you. Encouraging this useless wimp to kill himself attacking a flying monster-machine full of men with God-weapons. We need real heroes, not a tall wet fish."

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