Ever wondered why it's always 'his father's son'?
They stood in the courtyard of the Schloss Wassergrab. Mungo had his arm possessively around his daughter's shoulders, and was giving the Crum such an evil stare that the muscular blond had retreated, unfortunately to not quite beyond smelling range. Baron Ashill held Venus, comfortingly. "I'm afraid, my dear, that he must somehow have got into the boat. That's all I can think. The last anyone saw of him was when the rusalka started yelling her demands."
"Did she get away? I thought she was the wailing one all swathed in bandages?" Kate said, puzzled.
"No, that was her . . . um, assistant. Poor creature. I wouldn't have wished that on my worst enemy." Without thinking Mungo and all the other witnesses of the event reflexively clutched and gritted their teeth. "And then Crummag had to land on her back!"
"Well, I'd have landed in the thorns otherwise," said Crummag.
"So, did Vila get away?" persisted Kate. Mungo looked down. Baron Ashill nodded. "Yes. In the boat with the hostage. But she kept her side of the bargain and let you go."
"We got free all by ourselves, thank you," said both girls, affronted.
Count von Wolfrachen looked at them, surprised. "But no. You were released in exchange for the tall, thin fellow." He shook his head. "Appearances, as I have learned to my cost," and here he smiled at Huigi, "can be deceptive. To give one's self, with tied hands, to that creature took no small amount of courage."
"Squigs?" Kate looked at him. "That wimp wasn't here, was he?"
Slugger put an arm round her from the other side. "Listen, Katie-girl. 'E's no wimp. Toughest feller here, 'e was in spite 'o 'is looks. 'ow the 'ell do you fink we got 'ere inna first place? This 'ole lark were 'is bleedin' idea. An' 'e paid the price, see. Gave 'imself up as a hexchange f' you. But 'e went wiv a straight back, and no bleedin' questions. 'E jus' did it. I remember I thort 'e was a real puff . . . till I saw 'im sort aht that bleedin' Crum over there, the first time 'e met you. 'E should have finished Crum orf, that day. 'E 'ad 'im by the balls . . ."
Kate pushed away from him. "Listen, Slugger you go easy on Crummag. Between you and Pa, you've kept every boy in town away from me. You just stay away from this one. After all, the wise woman said my true love would be 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. Crummag's intended for me. But, Squigs . . . are we talking about the same guy? The tall thin skeleton with the pale brown skin and the frizzy hair? The one that always looks like a friendly toothbrush, and gets the major stutters every time he talks to me? The one that quivers like a leaf before every fight?"
Mungo and Baron Ashill nodded at her. "Yes."
"Tougher than he looks, that boy," said the baron. "A fine young fellow,"
Mungo nodded in agreement. "Not a man in Zikdoonvarna 'ud pick a fight with that lad . . . again. He floored half the town when we went looking for you."
"Comes from a royal family, too," said the baron. "I talked to him about his lineage. Genealogy an interest of mine."
Kate blinked. "But he said his grandfather bought his title . . . that great grandfather's name was Andrwywich . . ."
"His mother was from the Zulu royal house," said the Baron. "Nobly born, that boy."
Mungo nodded somberly. "And like Slugger said, he gave himself up as a hostage for your freedom. A brave lad. Wish you and I'd been nicer to him. I don't know why Vila wanted him, but I wouldn't give a quarter-Kare for his chances. And he knew that too."
Kate stared at her father, and then at the baron. There was no hint of mockery in their voices. Bits of the prophecy echoed in her ears. Poor Squigs. She been pretty rough on him. She did like him . . . once she'd got used to him. Crummag was like a storybook hero, exciting and, well, a bit dangerous for a girl. But Squigs . . . he was bit like a reliable pair of boots . . . something you took for granted, until you didn't have them. "Squigs went with Vila?"
"Got into her boat with his hands tied as a hostage in exchange for your release," said Huigi. "We told you."
"And you think Korg may be with them?" demanded Venus.
"Thinkin' abaht it," said Slugger, "nuffink could be more bleedin' likely! Makes me feel 'appier, that. 'e's a tough little barstool, that Korg."
Venus stamped her foot. "I want a boat, and I want it now! Move, gentlemen! Time's a-wasting."
"I wonder if we're not just bloody wasting our time." Squigs looked wearily at the ledge-path. Here it was wide enough for them to walk abreast. But in other places they had only just been able to edge along, facing the rock with the void below scratching at their backs. True, someone, or something, had been this way before. They'd had to dodge around enormous pipes which ran straight down the side of the pit, attached to the wall with huge, coarsely-welded staples. But they did not look new. Parts of the path had definitely fallen since then.
Korg paused and shrugged. "What would you rather do? Jump?" They went on. After hours, Squigs couldn't say how many, because it hadn't occurred to him to look at his watch until his stomach started growling at him, they reached a side passage. Korg looked at the black hole. Most of the space was full of the vast snaking pipes from the pit. Once they went into the hole and away from the earthfire glow, it would be totally dark. "Don't fancy that much. I always like to see exactly whose mouth I'm marching into," said the dwarf, and hesitated, a most un-Korglike act.
"Come on," said Squigs. "Those pipes must lead somewhere."
The dwarf looked uneasy. "Tell you the truth, I don't fancy dark closed-in places much," he said in a small voice. "Most dwarves . . . thrive down in mines and blooming holes. Places like that . . .squash me. Make me short of breath. That's one of the reasons I left home, and took to the Heroing trade. I've been in one small dark place today. I don't fancy doing it again. But like you say, it must lead out . . ." the dwarf took a deep breath. "If I have to, I will," he said with quiet determination. "But you lead, Squigs. And keep talking to me, please. Tell me about this dump of a world, so I know what we're in for."
Squigs stepped ahead of Korg, into the hole. Somehow knowing that the insanely brave little man was afraid of something made Squigs feel better. "Dump's about right. Look, keep hold of my belt. That way we'll know we're still together." He felt Korg take a firm hold of his belt. "As I was saying 'dump' is the right description. The place is the ultimate example of trashing a whole world . . . until it kills you. This used to be a hot little dustball planet. Too hot for you or me, really. But the inhabitants like heat. They're what we'd call poikilothermic. In the cold, their metabolism slows right down."
"Go on," said a choked little voice from behind him.
Squigs decided lecturing might just help. "Anyway it was a happy little agrarian hot-house, with the local silica-fellows cheerfully growing crystals, and raising fire elementals, little energy beasts that store solar input, and going off for nice volcano-side holidays every winter. Then, hey presto, some bright spark discovers exothermic chemical reactions. Very dirty exothermic reactions, but nice and hot. Is this too fast for you?"
"No. Go on. Walk faster too," panted Korg.
"Okay, so apparently the place went from agriculture to strip-mining for more chemicals to produce more lovely heat in about twenty years. Oh, I forgot to mention. They literally come on heat around here. When they get warm enough, they breed. So they had a population explosion, massive pollution, rip and strip mining, and in two hundred years they'd literally stripped the soil of nutrients, so their crystal-plants couldn't grow, even if they had had enough sun. The fire-elemental herds were dying, also without sun, and they had fifty times the population to feed. And the whole place was getting colder. So they needed to strip-mine more. And to reprocess the old mine-dumps. And to use lower-grade chemical reagents, with even dirtier burns. Oh, we're up against a wall."
"Feel for a door!" Korg sounded most unlike himself.
"Ah! Here." With a creak the portal swung open. The outside sky was still black. But it wasn't quite dark. It was more like a late afternoon under heavy thunderclouds.
Korg scrambled past Squigs, and out. He reached back to give Squigs a hand. "Sorry mate. I just had to get out of there. Phew! To stretch and breathe again!" The little man stomped about, blowing steam into the icy air. "Like you said, it's cold up here. Which one of these pipes should we follow?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," said Squigs looking into the gloom. "You choose this time."
The dwarf shuddered. "Heck, any of them, so long as it doesn't go back down there." He looked back at the small metal door that Squigs had tidily closed behind them. Shook his head. "Thanks, friend. I owe you."
"Call it quits," said Squigs, embarrassed. "I owed you several. Look, pick a pipe, any pipe."
"Nearest one," said the dwarf. "Go on with the story. I was listening, believe it or not."
"Not much more to tell," said Squigs. "They started running out of food, and reagents. There were a lot of nasty wars for the bits that were left. Their world kept getting colder. From a population of billions, a few hundred thousand survive. You see, when all the other food ran out, they made do with eating each other. The ones that are left are therefore pretty tough and nasty. They've evolved something of a feudal system. There are four great lords. They control the various mining Houses Major, and these have smaller units, the Houses Minor, who have the manufacturers, and the slag reprocessors loyal to them."
Korg looked at the cold, bleak, landscape. "So . . . we're unlikely to find anything to eat, or by the sounds of it, to drink. The locals are few and far between. How do you know all this? Any more good news?"
"One of my dear lecturers was from this bumhole of a place. If he was typical of the locals, be glad they're few and far between. Actually, we're unlikely to meet anyone up here, period. Everything's underground. It's warmer. Everything but the castles of the Demon Lords, as they call themselves. We will probably never find a solitary soul, no matter how hard we try."
Therefore, the creakily bellowed challenge a few seconds later was nearly inevitable. "Halt! Who comes here! I, er, I, um . . . mean foe or fiend? Yes, that's it, foe or fiend, eh?" The old codger, on the other end of a spear which was larger than he was, peered shortsightedly at them.
He wouldn't pass for human, except possibly around Piccadilly Circus, where aliens from Betelguese and further afield have been known to spend several weeks, only ever being noticed by muggers, who respond poorly to their "take me to your leader" statements. But one glance at the wrinkled-map face, and the single rheumy eye peering over the top of the bifocal lens would also have told you that the braces and baggy trousers were inevitable. While the rules of physics tend to vary between the spheres, there are certain universal constants.
"I don't know," said Korg. "What do your own chaps say?"
"Neither, of course," said the old fellow. "They say, 'Don't be such a silly old bastard.'"
"Ah. Don't be such a silly old bastard."
The spear point poked at Korg's stomach. "You mind your langwidge, you cheeky young sod."
"Well, can we pass then?"
"No. Not until you gives the password."
"Password!" demanded Squigs in his best official voice. The veteran sentry scratched his one ear. And then the other two. Finally, he said in a small voice. "I can't remember it." He turned and yelled in his reedy voice "Hey, Henery. What's the blooming password today again?"
"Eh? WHAT'S THAT?"
"IN. CAR. NAY. SHUN!"
"There you are. Pink carnation."
"Pink carnation," said Squigs obligingly.
"Pass, fiend. Tell Henery to send me up a cuppa something hot. I'm freezing my bollocks orf out 'ere."
In this fashion they passed into the ranks of the overground, and found themselves joining the agricultural revolution, possibly the only rebellion in all of time and space where "planting the seeds of the revolution" meant just that.
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