First hand experience

Korg Maccabeus stamped on the tall, handsome, broad-shouldered man's foot. Korg knew he wasn't really heavy enough to do the job properly, but hobnailed boots helped.

The fellow yelped and stepped back. "You trod on my toes, you sawed-off . . ." He shut up. Abruptly.

Korg nodded. "Yep. I did. Do you want to make something o' it?" he said, looking up. The other large, armed men in the crowd all backed off.

The muscular blond-maned fellow looked at him. Looked at his hands and the twirling piece of gleaming sharp-edged steel Korg wielded. "Um. No."

Korg nodded again. "Well, get out of my way while I read the new hero work-listings." It had been worth the months of practice that that trick with his battle-axe had taken. When you are three foot six high, you need to establish a lot of respect, or people stood on you, leaned on you, or put drinks down on your head. He turned back to the papyrus attached to the stele beside the Ziggurat door. The others crowded round it too. At a suitably respectful distance.

"Kentigern! You don't want to take on that one," said one of the bow-men.

"They say he's got a pretty daughter," said the one on whose toes Korg had stood.

"Ha." The bowman snorted. "Crummag, you would know about that. But she's Kentigern's daughter. And anyway, that contract's just too dangerous. 'Flying monsters and God weapons, first hand experience required, no chancers.' It's the third time it's been up."

Korg noted the contact name on the listing. Sligo Bey. Good. A fellow dwarf, even if he was a dragon hunter. He turned. He'd better get his gear from the boat-station lockers first. He noted without surprise that his toe-trod victim and the bulk of the others were mooching back to the tavern, already. He looked out at the watery flatness of the fen-lands. Pulled his beard, approvingly. There was almost no chance of damned caves or even tunnels here. He'd had to travel far to make sure "dwarf" and "mine" never occurred in the same breath.

In the morning Squigs woke to find her words still haunting him. They were etched onto Squigs' mind with a bitter acid that not even the washing tide of last night's alcohol sea could erase. ". . . 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"

Yes. He remembered that with crystal clarity, despite the fact that his body was attempting to pack up and go back to Mummy without his head. His head was intending to sue for permanent divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty, not to mention claiming damages for pain and suffering. To add insult to injury some miserable sod had caged an ostrich with diarrhea inside his mouth after he'd gone to sleep. Nothing else could possibly account for the taste.

Someone was whistling with obscene cheerfulness. And a thread of golden sunlight sneaked through the curtains and shone onto his toast rack chest. It was full of dancing dust-motes. It gleamed so brightly that he was sure all of nature was also in this merciless conspiracy against him.

"Coffee, lad?"

Squigs winced at the vibrations produced by Mungo's gravel-crusher voice. He managed a nod, bravely ignoring the odd clicking noises this produced inside his head. A cup the size of a fire-bucket was tendered. It was brim-full of black, viscous fluid. Alcoholic fumes mixed with coffee scent. "I put a tiny dram of good-for-all-that-ails-you in it," said his host, with an air of benevolence, seemingly unaware that his guest was trying not to retch.

With courage born of desperation Squigs took a mouthful. It cost him immense willpower to deal with it. Still, he forced it down, against all probability. Its final direction was doubtful for a long moment. Then it began to work. The effects were marvelous. The combined sugar, caffeine and alcohol burned straight through his frail-feeling stomach-lining and into his bloodstream. After a minute he was able to take a second mouthful and to actually almost enjoy it. By the bottom of the cup he was up, and trying to take stock of his environment.

The room was a vast, old-fashioned beehive-shaped coif of rushes, cut and bound into a long spiral. Even the floor was covered by a spiral mat of platted rushes. The window was a brass port-hole, pushed through the rushes.

A plaited arch led into another such room. Hooked into the walls were various items. Axes; hams; unstrung bows; ropes of onions; cruel barbed harpoons; plaits of garlic; broad-bladed spears; bunches of satanic-looking smoke-dried catfish; a spider-web of a cast net; quivers of dark-fletched arrows; carved decoy ducks. The couch he'd been lying on was simply a virulent green hide, shaped and stuffed with something soft. There were another two like it around the central stone slab on which the peat-turves glowed.

He became aware of a pressing need to see a man about a dog. A Great Dane. "Er . . . which way to the bog?" he asked uncertainly.

Mungo looked up from the rope-splice he was making. He pointed at the door. "It's out there. Fifty thousand square miles of it."

Uncertainly, Squigs made his way outside. The morning speedwell-blue sky was winter clear, only a few high, thin, feather-clouds between him and a sun that was not his own. The cluster of huts stood on a floating island of cut rushes, allowing him a view over an endlessly repeated pattern of reeds and sedges. The leaves were all white-edged with winter, and whites and greens were slashed with dark waterways. The horizon was prickled with purple mountains, ever so distant. A thin, cold wind carried the eternal susurration of the swamp to him.

He stood drinking in the beauty of it, idly splashing foam trails into the dark water below. He wondered how long it would take to learn to undo his fly easily with his left hand. He wondered how he was managing to be so calm about being an amputee. It was probably delayed shock, he decided. Soon he'd get around to screaming . . . about that and all the other horrors.

"Do you mind! You're peeing into the fish-cage. You complete jerk! Haven't you heard of toilets?" she demanded from the coracle which she had silently paddled into the channel.

Her only reply to his stammered and red-faced apologies was the kind of look given by a teenager to a pus-filled encrustation on the end of her nose, an hour before the big date.

She maintained a frosty silence throughout a breakfast of smoked eel and green duck-egg omelet. Her father finally quelled Squigs' desperate attempts at breakfast-conversation with, "Eating time now, laddie. Gab later." after which Squigs shut up and concentrated on food. Finally, when his host had wiped the polished wooden platter clean with a crusty flap of coarse brown bread, Mungo turned to his daughter and said, "I reckon you better take him to see Huigi, Kate."

She sipped her coffee. Made a face. "If you say so, Pa. But you still owe Huigi . . ."

The huge man's face darkened with anger. "That bloody bloodsucker! You tell him he'll get his pound o' flesh the next time I get a worm, not before," he choked out, between clenched teeth.

"We need him, Pa. Can't afford to offend him," she said, with a wry smile.

"I know, girl. Otherwise someone 'ud have chopped the blasted little bugger into mince-meat by now," he growled.

After a few simmering moments he subsided, and turned to Squigs. "Well, boyo. I'll need to be measuring you up for a set of decent clothes. Can't have you fighting dragon-poachers in those namby-pamby duds," he said looking critically at Squigs Levi's and much-stained lab coat. "What do those glyphs on your undershirt mean?"

"Er . . . nothing important," said Squigs, standing up hastily. It seemed that here in Zoar, even the stupid things you said when dead drunk were taken seriously. And he was not going to explain a t-shirt that read 'cork soaker, 36-24-36, wanted: apply below' to this particular father of a young daughter. Funny, in the past he'd always been inordinately proud of this offensive garment.

He found himself being measured from head to toe and several spots in between. And then Mungo told him to hop it, and fast, because by the sounds of it, Kate had the wagon out. "She doesn't take kindly to waiting, son," said Mungo, warningly.

That much Squigs had figured out for himself.

The same odd-shaped boat-wagon was parked just off the front of the hut, hooked up to the two hippos. The girl sat on the bench seat, looking grimly ahead, ignoring him. With an attempt at insouciance Squigs decided to show the advantage of really long legs. At least he didn't have to leap clumsily. Casually, he stepped across the gap.

As he straddled it, the gap grew wider . . . and wider. The vehicle was definitely floating. His blasé step ended in a wild threshing of arms and a resounding splash. Suddenly, he realized that water that could harbor hippo probably would have crocodiles as well. He hauled himself out onto the boat-wagon with more spluttering haste than dignity, amid their laughter. It was apparent that she certainly wasn't going to wait for him to get dry. A flick of the reins, and the hippo surged off with a snort.

Bedraggled, he sat and shivered on the bench seat next to her, with water slowly percolating out of his clothes as she drove. The winter sun shone, true, but it was still bitterly cold to be sitting in a puddle next to an ice-block. His attempt at humor, "Well, I needed a wash after breakfast," had been met with a stony silence. So he sat quietly and thought dark thoughts about women and their traumatic effects on his life. It wasn't very warming. So he tried thinking about how he'd got here.

Not for the first time in the last six weeks Squigs wished he had chosen to study something else as the epitome of uselessness. Politics. Or the History of Pre-Columbian European Tobacco Industries. Or even Architectural Aesthetics. But no. He had to go and choose bloody Alchemy. Just because it had seemed so hilarious to find such a department at a university with a towering reputation. Besides, he'd rather fancied the idea of those boat-races. Damn cheek. When he'd gone along to the training session they'd offered to take him on . . . as an oar

Then, when he had applied to the department, they hadn't wanted to accept him. So of course, being thin-skinned and black, it had become Alchemy or nothing. And look where it had got him . . .

He understood, later, much later, why they hadn't wanted him. It had nothing to do with his skin color. It was just that the Department was a "closed shop."

Overabundant gold is no use to anyone.

Squigs had stumbled onto something hidden. Sometimes, the best place to hide something is in open view. Especially when the "open" is the chaos which is an 800 year-old university. How was he supposed to have smelled that the Alchymstic Research Institute hid a real piece of an ancient and magical discipline? The building looked like nothing much, and lacked a name-plate. Generations of students and academics assumed they belonged to some other faculty.

Now Squigs had time to wish that he hadn't forced his way in.

Ah well, it was too late to apologize to old Prof. Selby now. By the seal of Solomon, curse the cantankerous little creature, if he could get out of this lot alive he'd apologize to all of them. Even to that creep Dr. Nisebind, and his time obsession, or at least to their graves. Dr. Nisebind had been the last to go.

Squigs shivered. He could still remember the twisted blue face and foaming green lips of the lecturer. And that had been when the . . . alien creature had been feeling well.

The creepy doctor had looked far better, almost human, when he was dead.

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