CUMULATIVE IQ = -3
The draconniers had managed to recruit seven "heroes," now sitting in council at Mungo Kentigern's float, with a cumulative weight equivalent to that of a medium-sized dinosaur, and, Squigs reluctantly concluded, about the same level of brain-power. A couple of these muscle-bound sword-swingers and so-called heroes would have found "Uh duh" too challenging to say, and far too philosophical. Their idea of strategy was "I'll jus' hittem."
The draconniers were generally more intelligent. But then, they had to survive hunting wily and predacious worms, and not just bashing other heroes. Heroes fought other heroes, just hitting each other until one of them fell down. It was a pity about this oath stuff that precluded draconniers from fighting anything other than dragons. But with the local God-King as your union boss . . .
Zoar was strange, reflected Squigs, and not just in having dragons. The society was pre mechanical, but the hero contract he'd been given to sign would have stood the test even in any sue-besotted American law court. He was now obliged to attack the poachers, while physically able, for which service he was entitled to retainer of six Kares per week or part thereof, and found. In addition he would be entitled to a share of any loot/treasure with his fellow heroes. Such loot was to be divided in three. One part for Ziklevieson, one part to the Draconniers Co-operative, and the third to be split amongst the heroes. Incredibly mundane and businesslike for a world of romance.
Korg the dwarf was holding forth, now. He could at least speak without dribbling, and could also manage two syllable words quite well. But, despite an overdeveloped Napoleon complex (I am short: therefore I am superior, in accordance with Adolf's axiom.), his preferred strategy was another variety of "I'll jus' hittem, especially if they're taller than me." Which meant that most of the world greater than 3'6'' was in for a bashing. As the dwarf was just as wide as he was high, or possibly even wider, Squigs had to admit that the poachers, below the belly button anyway, were in grave danger.
Still, he was a major improvement on some of the others. Take Leggilass, for example: a six foot lump of human, seemingly carved from Basaltic rock. He had become renowned for his berserker fury . . . on hearing his own name. This solid mass of bone, muscle and scar-tissue was apparently the result of a foolishly besotted parent with a poor scholastic record and a desire to name his son after his favorite drinking song. Leggilass would be a great asset if only they could persuade the poachers to call him.
Then there was the Great Krambo. Well, if he could get to sitting on them, the poachers were pancake material. The layers of lard must have made most of his internal organs virtually impervious to the swords, axes etc. of his fellow heroes. Squigs doubted if they'd help against the "God-weapons" that were being used on the dragons.
The Credible Hulk had fallen asleep, thumb in his mouth, a cherubic smile on a face like a construction site. The mental level of the debate had not suffered. Well, he was good natured at least. One had to be able to say something positive, after all. The Credible Hulk's war cry was his own name, but he rarely managed to get further than "Huh" without being prompted. But, okay, he was supposed to be good in a fight, if you could just point him in the right direction, and then stay out of the way until he was exhausted and fell over.
Then there was Baron Ashill. Squigs had thought Baron Ashill very hopeful, at first. Not quite as muscle-bound as the others, and also possessed of a magnificent curling moustache. Erudite, gentlemanly, plainly a past-master of arms, and of the art of war. Unfortunately also barking mad, occasionally pausing mid sentence to fight off a rabid attack by an unseen enemy. When in the throes of defending himself, often by dint of superhuman leaps and slashes, he was seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. It meant that one minute you could be talking rationally to him, and the next diving frantically to avoid being accidentally chopped in half or flattened.
It was apparent that most of the heroes with functional grey cells had heard what was involved and had decided to stick to hitting each other instead. In stature and intellect Crummag stood head and shoulders above the other five.
Oh. That was, if you didn't include Squigs. He was certainly taller than anyone else, and a few thousand watts brighter. But nobody seemed inclined to listen to him. Not even Mungo, who seemed to think that it was Squigs' fault that he had allowed the Crum to come back from town with them and thus turn his daughter into a complete airhead.
The draconniers had pinpointed a frequent materialization site. They'd even worked out, roughly, the periodicity of the appearance of the flying monster-machine and its crew of God-weapon bearing poachers. So, having evolved a plot in accordance with the brainpower of the heroes, they'd meet them there and challenge them. After all, that's what heroes do. The only objections had come from Squigs, who no-one listened to, and Baron Ashill.
Unfortunately, the Baron broke off his proposal half-way through, to fight his unseen enemies.
For a moment it had looked like Korg might step into the breach, and suggest something slightly more sensible, but Crummag's comment stopped him in his tracks. He said that no hero of stature would ever consider meeting trouble any other way. His comment brought a sigh of worship from Kate, a sigh of exasperation from Squigs, and absolute silence from Korg. Having done so much heavy cogitation, the heroes sat down to train for the victory feast.
It was certainly one aspect that they really didn't need to train for. Eating and drinking, especially at somebody else's expense, was something they did with skill, gusto and, especially in the case of the Great Krambo, speed. Squigs didn't, however, pay much attention to the glazed spit-roast suckling hippo with a melon in its mouth, or to the mountain of highly spiced and curried rice-pineapple-peppers-eggs-and-shrimp, or the smoked-eel pies. He was too busy watching the Crum, determined to spoil any moves the creep tried to make with Kate. He needn't have worried. The Crum was too busy sending her scurrying for some of this, or some more of that, to have the least interest in sneaking off to the far side of the float, and keeping her from the foggy, foggy dew.
Then Mungo came across, strangely, just as Kate had left to fetch yet another platter of smoked-oyster and lotus blossom patties, for the delectation of her hero. He gave Crum a hearty pat on the back. The kind of friendly he-man pat that can break a few ribs. It did in fact make Crum spray clam chowder across the width of the table.
Hastily Crummag grabbed his false teeth and put them back in.
Mungo pushed a two-pint mug at him. "Here you are, laddie. Seeing as my Kate thinks that you're such a prime fellow, lead us in the hero's toast. Drink it down now." He tilted the man's head (by the hair) and the base of the vast mug, so Crummag had little choice but to drink or drown.
By the time the starry-eyed Kate came back, armed with a platter laden with goodies for the enjoyment of her champion, Mungo had faded into the background. The cross-eyed Crum slid gently under the table before her eyes. She dropped the platter and knelt beside him. Her concern was greeted by a lover like bubbling snore full of barely diluted ethanol.
Squigs should have known better than to stand around grinning like a horse-collar, though. She rounded on him. "This is all your fault!" she sobbed, and with a swat left him gasping and fish-eyed on the ground next to Crum. She stormed off. A spectral parrot fluttered above him saying, "Awk. Another one bites the dust!"
Squigs was not particularly comforted by Mungo's muttered comment from the background: "I wonder if it's true about absinthe making the heart grow fonder . . ."
Mornings for the doing of heroic deeds always dawn cold and bright. It's in the fine print at the bottom of the contract.
Thus the foggy, muggy reluctant daylight should have warned the wise that this morning was a good one for staying in bed. But no. They were all rousted out before they could see what sort of light it was, and given the kind of evil coffee that resembles north-sea crude, and can also kill sea-birds. Breakfast would be provided on the raft, they were told. Move it! The expedition would leave in ten minutes with or without the Great Krambo, who was nowhere to be found.
Squigs got a beckoning gesture from Mungo. "Here, laddie. I finished off your dragon-leather trews and jacket last night." He handed Squigs a green leather outfit. "Put 'em on. Let's see how they fit."
Two minutes later Squigs stood encased in formfitting green leather. Mungo stood inspecting his handiwork, trying without success to stop chuckling. "Well," he said finally, "it fits. But no one is going to say your tailor makes fine birds, m'boyo." And he went off into a hopeless peal of mirth.
Squigs felt that this time that Mungo's mangled metaphors were entirely wrong. He thought he'd make a bloody fine bird, something like a green marsh heron, perhaps? The new leather was so stiff that he couldn't bend his knees or his elbows. His arms were permanently affixed at about thirty degrees, and his walk could best be described as a penguin shuffle. With difficulty he picked up his lab-coat. There were things in its pockets he didn't want to leave behind.
"The leather will get softer with time," said his tailor. "Now, what do you fancy in the way of arms, son?"
"Being able to move them, I think," Squigs said, turning his head with great effort. "Oh. You mean weapons. I don't know anything about any of them, I'm afraid."
Mungo looked heavenward. "What were you thinking of using? Your teeth?"
"My brains," said Squigs, with as much dignity as he could muster.
"They're no use," said Mungo. "You'll never be able to throw them hard enough. Here. Take a spear instead. At least with your reach, you've an advantage."
So, with a nine-foot spear in one hand and his old lab coat in the other, Squigs waddled off to join the bloodshot-eyed crew on the raft. Krambo had been found in Mungo's pantry, methodically eating all the winter supplies. It was a good raft. It didn't list by more than five degrees when the ten-ton-Tessie got on board. Kate sat talking to Crummag. He nudged her and pointed to Squigs, who was trying to do the eighteen inch step onto the raft with legs that would only get six inches apart. She burst into helpless giggles.
Korg arrived behind Squigs, and without any sign of effort picked him up by the seat of the trousers and tossed him across the gap.
The dwarf hopped across himself and grinned at the sprawled heap of rigid green limbs, "Want me to chop them ugly long legs off at the knee, seeing as you can't bend 'em? That'll bring you down to a reasonable size!" Korg fingered the blade of his battle-axe.
But seeing someone lower down than himself brought out the better side of Korg's nature. He took a callused paw off the axe-blade, and pulled Squigs up to a sitting position. "Move as much as you can." he said kindly. "The stuff gets supple quite quickly. Some folk say you should piss in it. An' it's true it does get it soft. But what they don't tell you, is that it turns your skin green if you do. Besides, you'd smell like the Hulk." He walked off to stow his kitbag and to sit on the edge of the raft, his short legs hanging a comfortable foot above the water, oiling a crossbow nearly as big as himself.
The raft, pulled by a team of six hippos, set off into the semi-dark. Eavesdropping, Squigs gathered that a couple of other draconniers would be coming along in their own boat-wagons to show them the exact spot. In the meanwhile there was nothing for him to do but sit and watch the pearly mist grow slowly lighter, and try to move his rigid limbs. After about an hour, Crummag came wandering over to where Squigs sat. Kate had gone to start making breakfast, and that smacked of hard work, to be avoided by the Crum at all costs. "You know," Crummag said kindly, "to get that leather soft, it really helps if you pee in it."
"I see. Does it have any other effect?" Squigs asked blandly.
"No, nothing," said Crum, looking him straight in the eye. "Just makes it flexible, see. And I couldn't leave you to go around like that, in such discomfort, when there is such an easy remedy."
The air cooled, and droplets of water settled out on Squigs' new sleeve. The parrot cocked its head at the brawny blond hero, and then put up a phantom claw to scratch its neck. "Awk! Bullshit!"
Before the matter could be pursued further, Kate's angry yell came from the back end of the raft. Squigs found he'd somehow got to his feet, and joined the others who ran to see what the problem was.
The problem was that breakfast was a thing of the past. So was lunch. Well, for most of them anyway. Someone had had all the meals in advance.
The great Krambo had decided that it had been at least fifteen minutes since he'd been evicted from the store-cupboard, and had set to work on the breakfast supplies. Having eaten those, he'd already got most of the way through lunch. He sat there contentedly sucking the last morsels from his teeth, his multiple chins splattered with raw egg. Kate was showing off her remarkable command of the English language. Squigs almost wished he could take notes.
Finally, he thought he'd better intervene. He wasn't sure, but he thought that piggy-eyes was getting a little irritated by being called things like "an eff'ing, thieving, rancid, beached whale." Well, the Krambo had stopped picking his nose, then inspecting and eating the bits. Now he was actually looking at her. And she was awfully small by comparison. If he hit her, or worse, fell on top of her . . .
"Er . . . isn't there anything else that we could eat?" Squigs quickly put in, when she paused for breath.
Inevitably, she rounded on him instead. "You overgrown streak of pelican droppings, what do you think this lard-faced gut-bucket has left for us to eat?" She looked at Squigs scathingly. "Maybe," she said, dangerously, "we should just eat you. You look just like a blasted string-bean in that outfit, after all."
"Too bony, girl." Korg grinned, showing his array of snaggle teeth again. "I could cut you a few rashers off fatty here, though. After all, he's the sod that ate my breakfast." He negligently tossed the battle axe from hand-to-hand. Korg looked up at her, his sharp black eyes glinting, "I'm just the right height to cut his eggs off for you to fry."
The Dwarf weighed in at perhaps a fifth of the glutton, but he was the only one of the "heroes" who had no fear of the vast man. Well, with the possible exception of Baron Ashill, who after a hard night of mad yells and attacks, was fast asleep. "Wait, I've a better idea. We'll cook his eggs while they're still attached. Shall I scramble them first?" He darted forward and flicked the lard layers sagging over the blimp's groin with the flat of his axe.
With a grumbling roar, and great rapidity for an arm that was behung with dewlaps, the porky behemoth lashed out.
Korg dodged back with agility and speed. "Yah, fat slug! Couldn't fight your way out of a brown paper bag!"
With a bellow of incoherent rage, Krambo lunged. To be stopped in his tracks by a parade-ground voice, "THAT'S ENOUGH!" Baron Ashill, awake and not at all haunted, looked very different from the amiable fellow of yesterday's council. "Korg. Krambo. Save your fighting until this afternoon, for our enemies! Korg, if I see you waving that axe around again, I'll bloody well disarm you, put you over my knee and spank you with it." Hearing him speak, seeing him move with a dangerous, feline grace, there was little doubt he could do it too. Or at least, by the dwarf's horrified look, Korg certainly believed he could. He put the axe down cautiously. Baron Ashill smiled. "That's better. Now, what about some breakfast?"
"Krambo ate it all," said Kate.
"What! Hell's teeth! If I'd known that I'd have let you sort him out, Korg . . ." Before he could finish, a terrible wave of rotten meat smell washed over them. The heroes, one and all, retched and gagged. The raft sailed forward into the stench.
"What in hell is it?" somebody asked.
Mutely, Kate pointed off into the clearing mist. You could hear the flies buzzing like a small sawmill, rising in clouds from mounds that vibrated blackly with them. Finally she spoke in a voice so small they could just hear it. "Thirty-one dragons. Drakes, She-drakes . . . even whelplings. More dragons than my father has hunted in his whole life. And all they took was the teeth. They just left the rest to rot." She gave a small sob. "This is only one place. They've killed thousands in the last six weeks."
Squigs found himself putting an arm around her shoulder protectively. "Don't worry. We'll do something. We'll stop this bloody murder, if it kills us."
To his surprise she leaned against him. "Thanks, Squigs. You're actually a good sort, even if you do look a bit funny." The soft curves of her did terrible things to his glandular system. If she'd told him to go off and attack the armies of the world right then, and to start off by heading south, there would have been no questioning her. He'd have stepped off the edge of the raft and pushed on into the bog until he died. Instead he got a rude shove from behind. He nearly ended up in the bog after all, as Crummag smoothly stepped into his place. Striking a heroic pose he said, "Never fear, dear, Crummag is here!"
And she said worshipfully, "Oh, Crummag! Now I know it'll all be all right."
Squigs ground his teeth. That damned loudmouth. But now his course of action had been set. He, not Crum, or any other of this collection of half-wits, was going to sort this problem out. He'd come to the world of Zoar looking for a place to hide. When he found himself committed to this daft quest his main idea had been to keep his head down, and get out of it alive. Now, his agenda had changed. He'd show them!
They sailed away from the stench again. Hungry heroes, it seems, are bad tempered heroes. By lunch-time they'd have been seriously likely to dine on a slice or two of Krambo, if Korg had not produced fishing lines from his kitbag. Trailing brightly colored feathers they managed a harvest of small, bony fish, before something big came up and snapped two of the lines like cotton, putting an end to the fishing. Still, the fish were tasty, even if the Crum, who had not deigned to do any of the fishing, scaling or gutting, managed to get to eat two of the largest fish. A bitterly moaning Krambo got none.
Later they were joined by Mungo and another draconnier, in a boat-cart, who cheerfully announced they'd come for lunch. "I know I packed enough to spare," said Mungo, cheerfully, "and there's not much edible left in my blooming larder, since some human locust got loose in it."
"You put the locust on the raft without muzzling it first. The greedy guzzler scoffed it all before the rest of us got a chance," said Kate sourly.
Her father looked at her with a wry smile. "And you didn't beat him up, Katie-girl? This boyfriend of yours is affectin' your judgment."
"Be like hitting a blancmange, Da. Besides, the beanpole and the dwarf got in the way."
"Faith, I'm beginning to like both of the boys," said Mungo. "Now, maybe we should reconsider the tall lad's suggestion and use strategy. Like putting fatty out for bait. In the meanwhile, we shot a couple of geese on the way across . . ."
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