Chapters 34 - 35, 40 - 46
Boots sat watching the fish that schooled beneath the lily pads. He crouched right by the water’s edge, eyes concentrated, ears pointing forward following his gaze, the tip of his tail twitching. The fish eyed him, motionless, watchful and tense.
“Krra-krra-krra!” warned Terry stooping to a bouncy landing beside the cat. The corvid’s sudden and noisy arrival so surprised the feline that he leapt high and sideways, spitting, followed by a splash.
“Rrr-oops!” exclaimed the raven. The big eyed fish darted as one and pounced with snapping pointed teeth.
“Rrr-wowwww,” Boots screamed, before being dragged under by the weight of piranhas. D’Earth, being almost everywhere, appeared and swung her scythe. Two fish from the shoal floated up toward the surface, their brothers and sisters chasing and chomping at the lifeless bodies. Skeletal fingers plunged into the water and grasped the sinking cat by the scruff of his neck and lifting, returned the dripping bundle of fur back to the grass, soaked and spiky black. The cat’s teeth were in a fish that had, clamped in its jaws, a twisting furry tail. Beside them the water boiled about the two dead fish. Boot’s tail slid free, but the fish in his mouth remained for supper. A couple of piranha flapped wide eyed from D’Earth’s white carpels and ulna, before realising that their teeth were aging alarmingly; they let go. Boots felt D’Earth’s departing glance and glared at the raven.
“Wrrrarned you,” suggested the bird with a smug shrug. “Prrrrrana.”
“You darn near killed me,” growled the cat. “Try warning me from a distance next time.”
Terry opened his wings and soared away. “Prruk!” he croaked, and left Boots to rue another life lost.
Beyond the turbulent water of the moat, and the barred window two feet higher, Kalashnikov sat in the dust of the floor with his back against the wall opposite. Four walls surrounded him in a space barely big enough to stretch in. You wouldn’t want to share it with a cat.
On the floor beside him were a wooden spoon and a bowl into which a meagre lunch had been slopped. It was a thick, grey, salty glue-like gruel, containing chewy but unidentifiable bits. The guard had called it stew, but to Kalashnikov it had tasted very much like the pitiful bowl of ‘porridge’ he had been given at breakfast, not to mention the previous evening’s supper, a bowl of ‘soup’.
Littered across the floor was a sea of stale straw, a lump of which he had scooped together to make a lumpy and uncomfortable bed. He looked up at the afternoon sky through that single window. It was just above head height, without glass; in winter the cell would be an inescapable freezer; the three strong, unshakeable iron bars ensured that. Earlier in the day he had gripped those bars and with a bit of a struggle had pulled himself up to survey the view beyond. He had viewed the distant grey buildings beyond the Lod, but on this side of the river there was only the fortified wall and the expanse of parkland that surrounded The Citadel to be seen. Immediately below the window was a wide moat in which several large fish swam. It was worrying that they seemed to be shoaling only in front of his cell. He knew the stories, had heard that the guards, and sometimes even the Lord Prefect himself, fed them; but not enough to lose their appetite. They were blue-black, with hungry eyes and strong jaws full of sharp, flesh ripping teeth; piranha fish. As his old fishmonger grandfather would have said, he was stuck between a rock salmon and a hard plaice!
Apart from the guard delivering the daily meal, there had been no other visitor. With nothing else to do he had had plenty of time to review the evidence of the bombings. Indeed he had time to review a lot of things. Kalashnikov had never had much regard for The Citadel and its occupants, but that is not to imply that he has ever been discourteous to them; indeed he was always careful never to slander any associate of The Citadel and, in truth, had a very strong, self-preserving respect for them. He had assiduously kept his true feelings hidden, ever since the Chief Commissioner of Police had allegedly fled the country two years previous after being denounced publicly by The Citadel as an embezzler of police funds. Curtis mistrusted them. He had conducted his own secret investigation into CC John Jameson, and found no evidence of any wrongdoing. Indeed the man had run the whole police force on a shoestring, and there had been no funds to embezzle. Also, at the time of his hasty departure the CC had been involved in a murder enquiry, one that was never solved. Although that wasn’t necessarily unusual, it was unusual that all the evidence and clues had disappeared with the man. He looked up at the two letters roughly scratched into the wall, ‘JJ’, and shuddered.
Another thing that no one liked to point out was that since that departure there had been no promotions, no pay rises and no recruitment in the Lodnun Police Force. In fact, the way the cost of living had increased in those two years, the pay scales of the force had actually dropped to poverty levels. It was incredible, but what had he done about it. Nothing! Don’t rock the boat unless you want… now what was it that his grandfather used to say?
The force was of course not what it used to be. For one thing, it was obviously a lot leaner. A few coppers had succumbed to a knife in a barroom brawl or a brick in a Lodnun alley, but most had simply left for better pay as street sweepers or something, with associated benefits and bonuses. Benefits such as safer jobs were easily tempting and even he appreciated that life expectancy tended to be greater outside the police force. And the bonuses? Well, at least a street sweeper could pick up a windfall in the gutter without looking guiltily over his shoulder. And then there were the two constables that had simply disappeared, one whilst on duty and the other had just not turned up for his shift; both gone without a trace, no evidence of foul play or anything.
As a result of retirements, resignations, disappearances and deaths, he was now in charge of a much-depleted force of some forty-one men, with which to ensure that the streets of Lodnun remained safe, and less than that now. ‘In charge’ was a joke too, he thought bitterly; he’d been in charge only because the chief commissioner had never been replaced. And he wasn’t in charge now anyhow; but that didn’t make things much different anyway. He still worried about the sergeants and constables, fretted for their safety. He should never have taken them into the Wodeling parish.
Crime had of course increased. He was certain that there were more burglaries, muggings, and domestic and alcohol related deaths now than ever before. Yet despite that knowledge, he also knew that fewer were being reported to the station. Strangely, the bigger crimes had ceased. He could not remember when the last bank robbery had taken place, and since the chief had departed there had been no serious frauds to investigate, which seemed definitely suspect; shady dealings were always going on, especially if The Citadel had a sniff of them. In fact, since the CC’s departure, there had been few investigations not to mention fewer successful convictions. He chuckled bitterly at the thought. Leaner unfortunately did not mean meaner. It meant fewer teeth to feed or fight with.
Now that was another thing. When they did get someone sent down, it was usually because that person was so psychopathic as to be a menace to absolutely everyone (even themselves sometimes), and locking them up was the only solution. Yet invariably a prisoner was released or bailed within six months of sentence, frequently through volunteering to do national service. Kalashnikov shuddered to think of some of the thieving and murderous scum that had filtered into the ranks of the Lodzamonkeze army in recent years.
And how had that happened? Well, four years ago Sergei Skarbaque had been relatively unknown, but now his star had risen high and he knew it. It had been his idea to conscript the jailbirds, albeit voluntarily and with discretion. Whose discretion puzzled the DI. However Skarbaque did have a point in suggesting that putting these men to work was less of a burden on the state, as well as creating a tougher army to defend the realm. The Lord Prefect had reportedly jumped at the notion, and signed a declaration into law immediately. The way Kalashnikov saw it, they were training the crooks to be leaner, meaner and more murderous, not to mention more adept at evading the law, but who listens to a detective inspector even if he is the nominal head of the police force.
So why have I stuck at it, he thought miserably; did he have a misplaced sense of duty? Or purpose? No one had offered him another job, but then he had not been seeking one either. He stretched and swore. “It’s because I actually enjoy it” he muttered. “I like getting into the criminal mind, solving the crime, and banging the bastards away; it’s what I signed up for.” He sighed. But I’ve miss the camaraderie of the earlier days, he thought sadly, and so many good men had died.
His thoughts returned to the bombings. Only the bomber and himself could be certain that the four bar explosions had been attributable to one person or group. So why had the major general attributed all five to HERA? That he knew about the Shovel was almost a surprise; certainly nothing that happened in Lodnun seemed to escape his knowledge. But to assume that one entity was the orchestrator of all the explosions? Was that so strange?
But Skarbaque was wrong in one thing. Kalashnikov was sure that there should have been some evidence of the six cases of ’74 Shambolay in the debris of the City Wine Warehouse. But there wasn’t, therefore it must have been taken; stolen. And one thing he was certain of was that no damn hoplin was going to touch the stuff. Indeed the evidence suggested that whoever was responsible for the bombings was wealthy enough to enjoy a bottle of Shambolay (sic the water filled bottle, not to mention the scraps of quality parchment left at each site). Someone, was setting the hoplins up; but why?
And what about the story attributed to Mitch Butler? And why had the major general been so quick to lock him up? Was ‘B’ the bomber? Or was ‘B’ for Butler, provider of the evidence that had jailed him? But Butler was a colonel, and Skarbaque’s man! So, what about Sergei Skarbaque? Was he involved? And if the DIS was involved, what about the Lord Prefect? Surely not… but… His head swam. Why? Yet there was no cast iron evidence, no proof of anything that could... but Butler had lied. His constables could verify that.
However, right now it was he that was facing a trial; or was he? Certainly he was stuck in this prison on some trumped up but highly convincing charges. Possibly jailed, without trial, for the rest of his life; and what of his life expectancy? How long was that? It seemed likely that, on Butler’s evidence, it would be shortly curtailed. It did indeed seem that he’d rocked the boat and… ah yes, now he remembered what the old man used to say… fed the sharks.
Ollie crept into Kalashnikov’s office and quickly made for the desk. He pulled open the third drawer on the right and withdrew all the contents that seemed to relate to the recent bombings, and secreted them in the pockets of his greatcoat. It was the first time he had been in the headquarters on his own and in total darkness. In the past there had always been at least one person there, manning the front desk. The place still felt as if someone was there, guarding it; haunting. He closed the drawer and tiptoed back toward the door.
Sound travels further at night and the opening of the main door to reception below nearly caused him to jump out of his skin. The hiss of a flaring match followed, as a torch was lit. Footsteps crossed the floor below, and Ollie hastily left the office and sneaked into the kitchen across the hallway. With a pounding heart he removed the standard issue club from his belt and waited behind the kitchen door; hobnailed boots were clumping up the stairs. The red wavering torch light bounced from the walls and ceiling, escorting their approach. A voice spoke as the intruders stomped into Kalashnikov’s office. He heard the drawers of the desk and cabinet being riffled, and then thrown across the floor. “There’s nothing here”, growled the same voice.
Whoever these guys were, they did not seem worried about being discovered. Ollie considered confronting them but, discretion and an ounce of self-preservation proving greater than his valour, he remained motionless. The two trespassers crossed the hall toward the kitchen. Ollie felt cold sweat trickling down his spine. His arm, which held the truncheon above his head ready to strike at least one of them, was starting to achingly tremble. A shadowy figure entered the room whilst the torch holder remained by the door. Systematically the searcher rifled each of the kitchen drawers, before emptying their contents onto the floor. Likewise the contents of the coffee, tea and sugar tins were thrown about the room. Ollie heard the kitty tin emptied, but the contents of that jingled into the searcher’s pocket. The crockery shelves were next with the plates and mugs swept crashing to the ground. With each breakage Ollie flinched. Finally the figure turned and Ollie feared he had been discovered, but the villain’s eyes passed over the shadows that hid him and departed from the kitchen; Ollie did not recognise the man’s face. “Nothing here either” he heard him say. “You check upstairs, and then meet me back down by the sergeant’s desk.”
Holmes knew that upstairs there was nothing but a couple of interview rooms and the water tank; it was not long before the second man thundered back down to join in the searching and trashing of the sergeant’s desk and the general lockers downstairs. Finally their steps led them out onto the street and away from the building.
It was quite a while after the villains had gone that Ollie Holmes shakily removed his boots. In his socks he crept about the building. In Kalashnikov’s office the drawers and cabinet were cast about the floor; the few criminal records that they had once contained were nowhere to be found. Finally he descended the stairs and slipped out onto the street. He disturbed nothing. Still trembling, and carrying his boots, he made his way cautiously home, puzzling over why these two men had made such a search and who they might be. Perhaps he would report the ransacking in the afternoon.
Midnight struck; over the roof tops of Lodnun the chimes from the bells of Great Sue drifted. Beneath them in the Coven Hall some of the students at the Witches Institute met to practice their art. Bella was sketching a charcoal scene. She sat back in her chair and watched the small dark stick as it scratched its way across the parchment tacked to the easel. It moved swiftly aided only by a certain kind of magic. The scene it created was mostly dark. After a while the charcoal stopped moving and hung motionless in the air below the sketch, seeming to flash in and out of existence; for one second it was visible and the next invisible. Bella frowned, trying to interpret the sketch before her; it did not appear to represent anything at all. If anything, it looked vaguely like a tadpole swimming by a filament of pondweed, she thought, and studied it more closely. After a few moments, she became aware of little splashes of light appearing suddenly in the main body of darkness near the tadpole’s tail. Also the tail appeared to grow longer and again tiny specks of light moved within it, but always in the direction toward its tip.
Bella plucked the charcoal from the air, and drew a small box around the portion of the tail adjoining the main body of darkness, muttering under her breath as she did so. She released the stick and it began drawing again. A new dark sketch formed alongside the original. It was rectangular and mostly dark, a magnified portion of the area which she had drawn the box around. Again the charcoal stopped and flashing, hovered below the new image. Parts of the darkness were darker, and she guessed they were buildings. Between the buildings darker circles and blobs appeared to move like blood into the tail portion of the drawing. She grabbed the charcoal yet again, and muttering drew a small circle over a small portion of the tail.
Another sketch formed next to the oblong just drawn. This time it was round, and contained a diagonal line in which could now be discerned carts and wagons, some hauled by ponies or asses but most pulled by hoplins. Now she understood the first drawing. It was an aerial view of the whole of Lodnun including the river, with fires springing up in the parish of Wodeling. The tail was a steady exodus of hoplins taking the northeast road which led toward Hopstandinopal.
“So, their leaving” Bella murmured. She removed the parchment and tacked a new piece in its place. “But where is Curtis? What is he doing?” Taking the charcoal she wrote ‘DI Kalashnikov?’ and then mumbled some more. The charcoal began to race across the parchment and line by line filled it with a shadowy sketch of the man asleep on a bed of straw.
“Damn! He can’t be sleeping on the job, can he?” she cussed in surprise. And where was he sleeping? Where was all that straw? Carefully replacing the drawing with a fresh sheet of parchment, she again wrote the DI’s name at the top, but this time the mumbling was filled with different sounds. “Not what is he doing, but what would he see! Where was he?” Again the charcoal began to race down the page and produced a tall oblong sketch. Three dark bars ran down the drawing, but between and presumably beyond the bars could be seen the distant silhouettes and shadows of buildings lit on one side by the half-moon which peered from behind dark, silver lined clouds. The whole was enclosed in a thick black border. At first the picture puzzled her. Had the spell she’d muttered not been quite right? It showed a view, but... One building was quite distinctive; it was where she was... The student witch thought for half a minute about the spell. “Oh!” she exclaimed, as a suspicion of the viewpoint dawned, and she perceived that the illustration before her would indeed be the view from her subject’s location.
It was the darkest hour before dawn. That time of night when, as the atomic clock adjusts by a split nanosecond, all the dimensions briefly co-exist together, threatening to merge; the moment when things that go bang in the night are worrying things, especially to those that are caught in a bed between the monsters of drowsiness and wakefulness. By contrast the snores of your sleeping partner are no more than a comforting yet irritating intrusion, something that just needs to be interrupted in order to attain one’s own state of sleep.
Kalashnikov snored on. A tin container crashed against the door, and then clattered on the stone floor. He stirred in his sleep.
“Psst! Curtis” A forced whisper tried to shout from the cell window. At the lack of response, the whisperer threw a clod of earth. It struck the wall just above the DI, exploding into a shower of grit and dust that rained upon his face.
“Wha?” he mumbled, and turned over in the straw.
“Curtis, wake up! And be quiet!” called a hoarse girlish voice. “Come to the window, now!”
Kalashnikov was suddenly very awake, and quickly moved to the window. He looked up into a shaded face framed by a hood in the moonlight.
“Who are you?” he asked stupidly.
“I’m your fairy god mother!” snapped the visitor in exasperation, and looked upward, perhaps rolling her eyes or communicating to a companion. Whatever, in so doing her cowl fell back and Kalashnikov observed that she was rather pretty.
“Ohhh... but you look so young. I’m sure I’m old enough to be your father.”
“Now, don’t be like that. I thought that I might give you a bit of help? You see, you’re the one on the inside, and I am on the out.”
“Oh, erm... good point. May I ask how you were intending to help exactly?” Perhaps there was disbelief in his smile, but she ignored it. There was nearby a faint leathery rustle.
“You just stand well away from these bars and I’ll show you” she grinned with eyes sparkling, symptomatic of deadly nightshade. She withdrew from the window. Wwwhhhumppphhh!
With some trepidation Kalashnikov realised that he had heard that sound, or something very similar, before. His expression transformed from that of a flirtatiously smiling beau to someone caught with their trousers down; two O’s for eyes and one larger for a mouth. “Oh no...” Beyond the window there was now a bright yellow glow where before there had been night. The light changed to orange, then faded to a faint blue. This was accompanied by a rising whooshing sound. He walked backwards away from the window until his back was against the door. Without further warning, a fine blue flame was suddenly roaring against one of the bars of the window. At their juncture the bar began to turn red, and the temperature in his prison cell began to rise. Little droplets of molten iron began to spark into the cell as the colour of the bar beneath the flame changed from red to white. A bright yellow flicker on the floor below the window caused him to glance down.
“Oh, no. No; no, no! Stop! Stop! Oi!” he called frantically trying to be heard above the flame’s roar. “Wait! Hey wait! I’m allergic to…” and he scowled at the smoking straw and squeaked “…fire!” The blue flame had severed the top of the first bar and was now flaring against the bottom of it. “Fire,” Kalashnikov gasped, as the straw below the window began to burn with a hungry yellow flame. “I’m going to be burnt alive” he muttered, glaring as two more straw fires burst into life. He ran to the window and stomped on the burning straw, and felt his hair singe from the heat above as his boots warmed beneath him. The smoke from the burning straw wafted upward, and caught in his throat. He coughed, “Ah-huu!” A moment later he pulled away from the heat, and began scooping the straw on the floor against the far wall. Quickly he managed to create a bare area of floor between the little fires under the window and himself against the door.
The first bar bent and fell into the cell onto a portion of straw that hadn’t yet burnt. It deadened the sound of the fall, but burst instantly into flame. The smoke smarted in his eyes but he squinted up to watch the cutting of the next bar. He grabbed an armful of straw in preparation to dull the sound of the second bar falling, threw it under even as the metal fell. His eyes were streaming; thick straw smoke and smuts filled the cell. Kalashnikov had tried not to breathe, but was now trying hard to stifle his coughing. The third bar was cut free, and fell with a clatter.
As he staggered toward the window, a large container of water was emptied through it. The remaining stumps of the bars sizzled and cooled, and a second pot full of moat water sloshed into his face. Something wet and scaly slapped broadside into his cheek and grabbed a lock of his hair and a piece of his ear lobe. Kalashnikov, with a small piranha hanging and slapping his neck like some exotic eardrop decoration, spluttered beneath the window, soot blackened and soaked to the skin.
“Okay Curtis. Up you come!” called his ‘fairy godmother’.
“I don’t want to,” he wheezed through another fit of coughing. On the floor two more piranha were thrashing in the puddle around him.
“Curtis! Come on! We’ve got to go. Quickly now!”
After gingerly checking the temperature of the cooled stumps with the tips of his fingers, he grabbed two of them and hoisted himself up. His shoes slipped on the wet wall and his biceps twanged as he struggled to haul himself out through the cell window. Eventually, panting for air, his head emerged through the window. Kalashnikov paused to gulp in the sweet night air, and then wished he hadn’t. A hand grabbed and interlocked with the hair of his scalp, and yanked him up and out of the cell in one swift motion. The next moment he was trying not to scream and to screw his eyes closed at the same time and with dubious success. Never had he had such a panoramic view of the city as he did now, not even from The Citadel; and they were still climbing with nothing but air between them and another extremely hard place.
“Stop wriggling and don’t be such a baby,” the female voice demanded from above. “I can’t hold you! Climb up here behind me, otherwise I’ll drop you.” Kalashnikov’s eyes opened wide, panicked by this new threat. In sudden desperation he searched for hand holds. He grabbed at a billowing fold of black fabric to pull himself up behind her, and then suddenly realised he was gripping her leg. With embarrassed shock he let go, and fell. She looked down.
“Oh dear. They haven’t looked after you at all well, have they?” she said cryptically as she watched his tumbling, dwindling drop.
Kalashnikov fell like a spider, legs and arms double wrapped around him. His eyes were tightly closed, which was just as well as the spinning view of Lodnun’s rapidly approaching buildings would certainly have freaked him out; and if you’re about to die, that’s not very nice. He just tumbled though the air unseeing and unthinking, the ground rushing up to meet him.
And then his fall stopped with barely a jolt. It seemed to him that he had been deftly caught by an enormous surreal talon just feet above the jumble of buildings and towers that glowed in the moonlight below him. He thought that he had fallen only a mere few feet; it really hadn’t seemed that long or far. Yet it had been far enough for almost his whole life to flash before him and... hadn’t d’Earth been falling beside him with a sympathetic smile, and carried on down?
Another realisation dawned in that he was held by a giant nailed paw, a double take above the city heights and a question as to whether his life was about to flash before him all over again.
“Well Curtis,” called a disembodied voice, “Meet your saviour, Schmichael of Schmorglund.”
Kalashnikov, with his arms and legs wrapped around the great claw, looked upward into a large blue-green eye, flecked with gold, and recurved, grinning teeth. It’s funny how when you think things can’t get any worse, he thought, they invariably try too.
“Kalashnikov, at your service,” he whispered breathlessly, almost squeaked, hanging on for dear life to one giant, flesh ripping appendage. The eye blinked at him in a reptilian sort of way; how else! “Er... yeah; and thanks for breaking me out of prison.”
“Ya, is good! Not easy to control flame and heat for cutting iron bars. But I do it with ease, ya?”
“Good. I’m glad to see you’ve got fine dragon etiquette, Curtis. Now climb up here, and do be careful this time,” she instructed in a motherly sort of way. Watching the former DI struggle to climb up the dragon’s scaly leg and chest was scary, heart in the mouth scary; he clambered over the scale bound muscles that, reflecting moonbeams, bunched, stretched and creaked while the dragon pumped its leathery wings to climb ever further away from the city. Thrice he slipped, the second time tumbling back again onto the dragon’s foot which once more seemed to have materialised out of thin air, but this time in place of a patchwork of distant fields dotted with villages visible in the silvery light. Eventually he succeeded and as pale as snow, with sooty smudges highlighting his brow and cheekbones, clung with one hand to her robe. With the other, he hauled himself up behind her, swinging his long leg over the dragon’s neck to gain a precarious seat astride the creature’s vertebrae. Kalashnikov sought a handhold before him but there was only this mysterious woman and her flapping robes within reach. In an attempt to anchor himself to the dragon he managed to grip one of the scales behind him with his left hand. On the other side his right arm flapped vainly seeking to attain a balance in the darkness, he continuing to feel precariously insecure.
“Oh for goodness sake, Curtis!” she swore, and her own slender fingers shot out and seized his flopping wrist. Firmly his arm was pulled around her slender waist, and she shouted above the roar of the air, “Leave it there and grab my cloak.”
“But I don’t even know you!”
“And if you fall off again, you never will! If it makes you feel any better Curtis, my name is Bella.” And that, the DI realised, was probably all he was going to be able to cope with until they returned to terra firma. Far behind them the city of Lodnun had become a small toy, a toy to be picked up or cast aside upon whatever whim. Below was a dark forest, and beyond a great expanse of seemingly featureless desert. A rainbow dawn peeped over the black eastern horizon.
They had been flying for what seemed a lifetime. They had gone up and up and up… and up. He had seen all of Lodnun, and then all of Lodzamonkeze including the rain forest and the desert belts. And then the Storm Mountains, Hopland and Cujimi too, not to mention the Circle Islands in the Middle Sea. As Hopland came into view their ascent had begun to slow, and just as the land of Yankmidoodle peeped over the horizon it had imperceptibly stopped. It was at this stage that Kalashnikov had stopped breathing, partly because he was concentrating on preventing his violent chattering and shivering from dislodging himself, partly because the air was so thin and cold at that height, but mostly because of the old adage “What goes up, must come down”. Schmichael had folded his wings. His long horse-like face was looking down, and was waiting for gravity to catch up. It did.
Yankmidoodle slipped slowly back from view, as did the Circle Islands. After that everything blurred into an accelerating growl of white noise, their descent speeding inevitably faster than that of their ascent. The dragon stretched out his neck and tail, adjusting his wings to give a streamlined profile that offered the least resistance to wind and re-entry. Between the bulges of his shoulders his passengers crouched, attempting to become as flat as possible against his neck. The air roared over and around them, whipping Bella’s streaming cloak against the horrified detective. All three of them held mobile manic grins, their cheeks and other loose skin pulled about in ripples by the g-force. The snow-capped Storm Mountains began to fill their immediate future, whilst cattle in the fields far below heard a succession of sonic booms that caused them to stampede. The mountains grew bigger and larger, changing from picturesque alpine meadows where shepherdesses might sing of edelweiss, to very hard unforgiving crags with knife-edged ridges and spiteful spikes of rock that would carelessly rip out the underbelly of an incautious dragon. This was a place where brooded angry trolls and sullen rocky screes of shifting temperament.
Schmichael of Schmorglund adjusted the profile of his wings, and stretched his clawed talons forward. He had the air brakes on and the wind juddered, smacking against them. Out of those rocky crags, one in particular began to differentiate, to loom. It contained a ridiculously small, dark hole in an otherwise featureless slope. Schmichael was speeding directly toward that growing darkness, but it was difficult to apprehend just how much distance there was between them and it, or so it seemed. It terrified Curtis.
Bella shouted “Duck!”
“Where?” cried Curtis. “Wha…!”
Little starry things with three orbiting quacking ducks floated around in his suddenly blank consciousness, accompanied by a moment of distant jangling and crashing noises, not dissimilar to those that might be made by an exploding piano quartet; with a series of clangs and plunks the noises faded away.
Bella pried open the white knuckled fingers from her cloak, and then turned her attention to the other four digits and thumb which gripped one of Schmichael’s scales. Curtis was inflexibly unconscious. His irises were large black pupils in a sea of bloodshot cornea bulging from a slightly yellow tinged, pale face, the cheeks frozen in a grimace that revealed most of his ivory white teeth. If his being had not been rigid, he would have been gibbering with quivering lips. She pried loose the last finger and gave his shoulder a gentle push, and the DI half slid, half tumbled down the dragon’s side to the ground. He landed with a thump, which seemed to loosen him up a little.
“Really Curtis, I honestly thought you were made of sterner stuff,” Bella declared, as she began her climb down the dragon’s shoulder.
The DI rolled his head. With some effort he raised himself on an elbow. Blood dribbled down his cheek. “I left my horse in Lodnun,” Kalashnikov responded in a soft, singsong voice, and collapsed back into blessed unconscious.
His head pounded. He raised a hand to it and discovered a large tender bump on his left temple, which was covered by a bloodied bandage. Squinting, he vacuously watched strange patterns of golden light that drifted and flickered, chasing dark shadows around the ceiling and walls. Eventually the aching of his body against the hard granite floor forced him to seek a more comfortable position. He rolled on to his side and only then became aware that the straw of his cell seemed to have mysteriously changed into glinting metal which, in a variety of forms, was scattered all over the floor. Most of the items reflected the flames of candles that burned on multiple wall brackets. He sat up and rubbed his face, then looked in the opposite direction and felt his jaw drop a hundred miles.
There against another wall was the biggest mound of gold, silver and jewellery surely any man had ever found. The pain in his head vanished in the twinkling of the lights. In fevered awe he staggered to his feet, never averting his eyes from the amassed wealth. ‘Riches beyond belief’ he thought, but once more became aware of the dancing golden light which appeared to emanate from the far side of the heap. Cautiously, with sinking heart, he tiptoed around the treasure horde. “Riches beyond belief….” he muttered, edging around the glittering mass to behold Schmichael asleep, a golden glow pulsating and gliding rhythmically from his snout through to the tip of his tail in time to his breathing, “… and owned by a dragon.” Kalashnikov cursed softly, the throbbing ache in his temples resuming once more. Curiously the pulsing pain seemed to take its timing from the serpent’s glowing rhythm.
When the dragon suddenly opened a bright turquoise eye, the dark slit of its pupil focusing upon him, Curtis almost leapt out of his skin. Quickly, but politely nodding his head to the dragon, he turned and fled toward the only passageway that led from the cave, for cavern it was. Another thing which Kalashnikov failed to register was the incongruous décor next to the door, so-as-to-speak. Precisely positioned to the left of the tunnelled entrance was a potted lemon bush, its glossy green foliage bearing small green and yellow lemons. Next to that, on an occasional table, was a large white enamelled bowl containing water; a silver ladle placed beside it upon an orange hand towel. “I left my horse in Lodnun,” Kalashnikov muttered to the bush and swayed up the passageway.
When he came to its abrupt end there was nowhere else to go. The tunnel opened onto the outside world in the middle of a sheer rock face. Hugging each passage wall in turn, he sought for a way to climb down, or even up, but the cliff was devoid of any feature to support a foot or provide a handhold. Below, a very long way down, the land was blanketed in the white threads of a dawn mist. He sighed. “Some mornings I wake up full of optimism” he muttered to himself. “I hate that; I really do.”
A quiet echo of a voice asked “Why?”
“Because by the end of the morning, something has always blown it away,” Curtis responded, cautiously twisting around to address the speaker.
“That’s very sad. Perhaps you should try waking with pessimism,” Bella smiled back at his stony face.
“I usually do,” he replied sulkily.
Curtis turned back to survey the rolling mists. “I suppose I should be grateful that I’m no longer in The Citadel’s dungeons” he said to break the silence, which was definitely becoming awkward, “But I’d really like to know how we get out of this dragon’s lair. What did you bring me here for, anyway?”
“We came here because it’s safe.”
“Safe!” He span around and almost lost his balance on the cliff edge. He sucked in air. “Safe. Well yes, I suppose it is, so long as a shiny trinket doesn’t attach itself to my backside. Yes, in that case it’s perfectly safe, until some idiot George comes calling by with the intention of stealing the Schmorg treasure; and I don’t fancy being around when that happens.” He paused. “Safe! It’s so damn safe that the only way out is the one we took coming in.”
“Ah good; you’re getting the hang of it. And you’re getting to be your old self again, I presume” Bella grinned.
“My old self?”
“Quite! That really was a nasty bump you took on the head.”
“My head” Curtis repeated pathetically.
“You really should get some rest. You’ve had quite a hard time of it lately.”
“I have? Yes; yes I have, haven’t I?” he responded in puzzlement. She was staring at him in such a peculiar way, it made him feel quite nervous and strangely sleepy. “Perhaps I’d better go and have a lie down.”
“Good idea. In the meantime, Schmichael and I will be out. There’s some things need doing. Tell you all about it when we get back. Off you go then.” She watched him shuffle back down the passage, and then with a mischievousness that even surprised her, called after him “Oh! And Curtis dear, you’re absolutely right about the way out.”
Sergei opened the tin, which the guard had found in the smoky dungeon from which Kalashnikov had escaped. Inside was a sheet of paper, slightly charred. After swiftly reading it, he passed the document to the Lord Prefect, who did likewise. It read:
‘You will stop the harassment and murders of the hoplin people immediately.
Any further action against these people will be met with swift retribution.
It is in all parties’ interests to resolve this situation amicably and tactfully.’
“My lord, it was the only item to be found in his fire damaged cell. Whoever sprung him left this here to be found, a rather weak threat wouldn’t you agree? But that aside,” and Sergei smiled, “It does provide us with all the evidence we need to link Kalashnikov with HERA. With your permission sir I’ll issue reward posters for his capture, dead or alive.”
“But do you think that’s really necessary? After all, Kalashnikov has always been so um… reliable.”
“Maybe the stress of the job turned him sir, who knows? But there must surely have been enough evidence from all those bombings for his investigation to make some inroads into HERA, if he’d wanted to.”
The Lord Prefect sighed, “Perhaps Sergei, perhaps.” He steepled his long thin fingers and thought for a few moments, before continuing: “By all means issue a reward poster Sergei, but ensure that the reward, set at say $300 dollars, can only be claimed for his deliverance to us alive. He’s useless dead; but alive, we may be able to glean some more information about HERA from him, hmmm? Wouldn’t you agree, hmmm?”
“Yes sir, as you say.” Sergei forced a smile, but inwardly he cursed. He wanted the detective inspector out of the way; at least while he reorganised the policing of Lodnun. However accidents can happen, he speculated, and his smile became more genuine. “Sir, if you would find time today to peruse those documents that Miss Sweet delivered this morning, and mark them with your approval, I’d be grateful. The top two are the most important, since they relate to the organisational changes I’m proposing for the policing of the city. Basically they relate to the reporting hierarchy and realignment of the police force within the military restructuring, as well as the new name and ranks, sir.”
“Yes I’ve read them, and the others. All signed, Sergei, so you can drop them on Miss Sweet’s desk when you leave. Are there any other matters to discuss?”
“No sir, I don’t think so. I’ll issue the press release concerning a reduction in our military armed forces a week or so after the one detailing the revitalisation of the police department.”
“Good, good. Well please don’t let me detain you. A-ha-ha!”
“Thank you sir,” replied the Director of LIS, and collecting the documents he left the Lord Prefect’s office.
Outside he removed the pages that would be redirected back for his attention, the rest he left in Miss Sweet’s in-tray. He had some weightier documents in his office, to which the signed affidavits could later be attached.
“I don’t get it” Scrappius grumbled. From above fell the sweet musical notes of a skylark to accompany the trundling of the wheels as the cart ground along the road behind the sweating, plodding pony.
“What do you mean?” asked Minimous quietly.
“All the hoplins of Lodnun just got up and ran, except for you. Why?”
“Yes, why! Why didn’t they stand and fight with you? Why did they run?”
“It wasn’t that simple. Everyone was scared. Properties had been burnt to the ground. The police couldn’t stop the rioters, they were outnumbered and, well….”
“Our people were frightened, Scrappius,” Red’s uncle spoke into the resigned silence. “What would you say is more valuable, your life or your possessions? For the hoplins of Lodnun it is life.”
“And now that you’ve run they’re murdering us in the farmsteads, we who supply Lodnun with food! Why couldn’t you stay put and sort it out, or at least make some kind of stand?”
“Listen,” said Minimous, “it happened too fast. There was no chance to organise a resistance to the vigilantes, and they wanted blood. We’re not a fighting people, Scrappius. We avoid conflict. Even the weapons we used to deter the mob weren’t meant to kill. Don’t you see? We couldn’t protect ourselves. We had to run, or be killed.”
“But what happened to HERA? Surely they were making a stand?”
“It would be nice to think so wouldn’t it?” Blue pitched in. “But I don’t believe there is a HERA. None of us do. There never has been a HERA.”
“Yeah? Okay, so how come you guys are armed with crossbows then? I’d hardly call them non-lethal” he challenged.
“Like we told you lad,” Red’s uncle growled, “we’re probably the last hoplins out of Lodnun. We came by these weapons, as yet untried, after the police stopped the vigilantes. The police suggested we might need them for protection against bandits on the road to Hopstandinopal. Fact is, they suggested we leave for our own safety.”
“So the police are in on it too? Where do you think it will stop, eh?” Scrappius persisted. “They’ve driven you from Lodnun. They’re driving us from the countryside. What happens when we get to Hopstandinopal? Do you think they’ll let us stay there? That’s still in Lodzamonkeze, you know.”
“Maybe, but we make up sixty percent of the population there, or so I heard” interrupted Shankusmaximus senior. “We’ll be ok there.”
“Yak’s blood, listen! The police may have told you to leave Lodnun, but it was soldiers that came for us, and they weren’t leaving survivors. I’ll be surprised if they don’t try an’ drive every hoplin right out of Lodzamonkeze, the Hopstandinopal population an’ all!”
An unsettled silence fell on the travellers, as they pondered Scrappius’ outburst. ‘And what if they don’t stop at the border?’ Minimous thought disquieted. ‘What if they push on and invade Hopland, then where could we run? What becomes more valuable then, survival or resistance?’
Kalashnikov sat with his legs dangling over the lip of the passage entrance. Bella had said something about getting more information concerning the hoplins and events in Lodzamonkeze, but he was sure that she and the dragon were supposed to be away for only one night. True, food and drink in plenty had been left in one of the recesses within the cavern walls, and he’d had more than enough time to explore and investigate his new home or jail. However it seemed to him that they had been gone longer than two days, even accounting for the bits of time he couldn’t account for; these being the episodes that were punctuated by finding himself unaccountably lying on the ground. The series of peculiar blackouts had been a bit worrying, but they seemed to be over now; otherwise he wouldn’t have risked sitting where he was.
As a policeman he’d taken particular interest in the contents of the treasure mound that Schmichael had so assiduously tidied the morning after their arrival. Curiously, having examined the items more closely, they left him feeling quite cold. Much of it was broken, bent, scratched or bereft of onetime inset jewels. The weaponry amongst the glittering mass spoke to him of failure and unreliability. It seemed to him that the whole pile was just so much tat and bling. In fact, there was not a single item, not even one gem that he coveted from the hoard. It was as if the whole lot was cursed.
After that, he’d explored the cavern and confirmed indeed that there was absolutely only one way out; just as Bella had confirmed. There were however some notable oddities inside. For instance, as well as the earlier mentioned lemon bush, there were three strategically placed mirrors; from Schmichael’s sleeping place no corner of the cavern was hidden. There was an alcove containing all the food, and another that revealed the storage of a folding wooden table and two matching chairs. One more alcove contained a natural basin, filled and flushed by a trickle of water that flowed from a small crack in the wall; and a pair of towels on hooks for heaven’s sake!
Finally, hidden at the back of the cavern near the treasure mound was another crack. Well, that was what it looked like until you came up real close to it. You walked around what appeared to be a crack in the cavern wall and there it was; a tight fissure opening into a recessed room, something dark and somewhat sinister. It felt not dissimilar to a lightless dungeon, because of its cold dampness and the way the floor sloped sharply down into it. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to find in there but by the light of a candle it was an awful shock to discover it contained nothing but an armour clad skeleton, several more bits of various rusting armour parts and a lot of blackened bones (Later the dragon enigmatically declared that this was ‘Georges’ Room’).
But for now the afternoon sun soothed the detective inspector as he sat and relaxed on the ledge. He was beginning to feel refreshed and recovered. The view he gazed upon was impressive, with a patchwork of verdant leas and woodland far below. Further off were green grazing and brown fields, and dark forests; and all hemmed in by the curving range of snow-capped peaks. Down below an eagle turned lazy loops in a thermal over a meadow. Distantly, a dark shadow sped across the landscape, growing larger. The eagle sloped away. Cows and horses suddenly ran, stampeding in the fields. The shadow was speeding toward…
Curtis looked up and screamed. He scrambled from the ledge to his feet, for a moment his legs spinning air, and then from a crouch his shoe bit granite and he sprinted for his life back down the dark passage. Behind him, the great girth of an enormous creature dived toward the tunnel entrance with folding wings. It swooped into the entrance with outstretched neck, claws scraping along the floor in a shower of sparks. Curtis ducked around the corner into the main cavern a split second before the teeth glittering jaws of the great dragon followed. Directly ahead of the speeding monster was the rock wall, piled up against which was the huge mass of Schmichael’s treasure cushion; gold, silver, diamonds and rubies; candlesticks, crowns, necklaces, money, jewellery... Cr-rr-rr-rash-sh-sh!
As the resounding din of redistributed wealth tinkled to silence, Curtis picked up a hefty silver candlestick that had rolled to his feet. Gripping the makeshift weapon, he cautiously approached the creature. A silver coin spun on the floor to a wibbling silence.
“Ahem!” coughed the monster politely. Curtis took a rapid step or three backward and found himself flattening against the wall. “I was only going to ask what you intend to do with my candlestick,” said Schmichael grinning through the mass of his curving pointed teeth.
“You could have killed me just now,” Curtis shouted angrily. It seemed to him that the dragon’s grin became impossibly broader.
“Sorry old man” Schmichael soothed. “I just couldn’t resist a bit of fun when I saw you sitting there, not a care in the world, with your little legs dangling over the edge. Mind you, it is a sod of a cavern to fly into. If I didn’t have my golden pillow,” he added indicating the treasure, “there’s no doubt that that wall would give me a mighty headache every time I come home. Anyway, what are you going to do with that candlestick?”
Kalashnikov considered the shining item, but then asked in an almost business-like tone that did not quite hide a sulky undertone “Why don’t you tell me, just where did you get all this wonderful jewellery from? You can’t have paid for it, surely.”
“You really know how to make friends and influence people don’t you” the dragon replied in a hurt voice. “Popular are you?”
The detective inspector’s face assumed a blank mask, as he considered his response. “As a member of the Lodnun Police Force, popularity isn’t necessarily my middle name; and as such,” he flicked some hair out of his eyes, “I do have a duty to make such enquiries as I deem…”
The dragon hissed, “Ex-member!”
“Ahem.” The DI assumed a placating pose, gently pushing the air down with one hand. The left one still held the candlestick. “Yes, quite” he added soothingly.
“And anyway, I have had the good fortune to have inherited.”
“Oh inherited! Of course, er... Good.”
“So detective inspector ex, what are you intending for my candlestick?” the great lizard enquired.
“Nothing; nothing at all” and Curtis threw it back onto the pile.
“No. No! Not that way!” the dragon tutted. “Next time I fly in, bang! You’ll have my eye out leaving it like that. You got to point it toward the back wall like the rest of the stuff, see? Go on; turn it around then. That’s it, so that the candle holders point toward the back wall.” Kalashnikov obliged. “That’s better, but three inches to your right.”
“What? I don’t see what difference that makes.”
“Well I do.”
Kalashnikov shrugged and obliged. The dragon attentively watched the transfer, and then continued incredulously: “You mean you haven’t heard of fang shoo-ie then. How’d you get around your house without fang shoo-ie?”
“Fang shoo... E?”
“Yeah! Fang shoo-ie; the way of the dragon! If you don’t practice fang shoo-ie, you bash into things. Things break. It’s no good!”
“Ah… fang shoo-ie. The way of the dragon” Kalashnikov nodded in wide eyed agreement. “Yes; yesterday dragons were a myth and today I am master in fang shoo-ie. That’s good.” he smiled.
“Don’t be facetious” snarled Schmichael. “I will explain. Fang shoo-ie is the art of placing things in their appropriate place within the confines of their habitat or abode, such that, if a dragon such as I should enter their vicinity, then the dragon will not suffer impedance nor the items be damaged by accidental contact, for the way is clear for the dragon to move.” A large smiling, tutorial eyeball bore down on the detective. “Clear?”
“Crystal,” Curtis replied crisply.
“Of course” continued the dragon, “It doesn’t quite work brilliantly in here, because of the juxtaposition of the back wall to the passageway. But as long as the contents of my golden pillow obey the laws then it should protect me from any injury.”
“Yeah, I can see that. But if I had the problem I’d just knock the back wall through and extend the size of the room.”
“Really? Just knock the wall of this mountain through?” nodded the dragon. He shot a whiff of organic blue flame through his nostrils. “Listen pal, dwarves come expensive around here; especially when they see a blooming hoard of treasure like that.” On which point the dragon began to fuss over, rebuild and reshape the shining pile for his next homecoming.
“How come most of this stuff doesn’t tarnish or rust?” Kalashnikov puzzled aloud.
“Don’t know. It’s funny that,” and then Schmichael seemed to dismiss his presence, slithering further over his pillow of wealth and, as it turns out, health. He fussed with this and that, reshaping the pile. Without it, the great lizard would no doubt be one angry, migraine afflicted monster after each homecoming.
“Bella, are you here?” the detective called out, as he returned more of the redistributed treasure to the heap.
“I’m tidying up over here” she responded from the far side of the golden pile.
“Quality perhaps... High carat gold... You wouldn’t think of hiding any trinkets would you?” suggested Schmichael turning and eyeballing the policeman through narrowing eyes.
“Certainly not!” protested Curtis, hurrying around to join the witch.
“I thought so!” she grumbled.
“What!?” exclaimed Curtis as he came in sight of her.
“Oh stop worrying, Curtis. Just look at my hat! The passage ceiling has bent the point off. It’s a wonder I didn’t lose my head. You really should find a larger cave Schmichael, or at least improve your entrance.” The dragon cocked an eyelid at her as carefully she moulded the hat back into the appropriate shape.
“Your hat! You’re worried about your hat? That monster nearly smeared me all down the passageway!”
“Yes, well, never mind that now.”
“And you don’t need to shout. I’m not on the next mountain. You’ll be causing an avalanche next.”
In exasperation Curtis threw his hands into the air, and then stomped off up the passage to the cave entrance muttering something about someone having lost more than the tip of her hat, and being mindless (with or without a head) to have hitched up with a bloody dragon.
“Highly strung, isn’t he,” Schmichael commented. Bella smiled.
Contrary to witch mythology, Bella did not sport hairy warts upon her nose or chin. She didn’t have any warts at all. In fact she had rather a petite button of a nose, instead of the hooked axe one might expect. You can always identify a bad witch by their warts. Those that are any good at the craft know how to get rid of them, not to mention a host of other embarrassing afflictions or inconvenient ailments. And, to be honest, the common folk of Lodnun were more likely to be generous and courteous to a good looking woman than to a nasty looking one, and that’s a shame really because some of them were really quite nice.
Bella did however have dark eyes, an expressive mouth and a strong jaw; and a hat. Nevertheless the whole appearance was actually very attractive, framed as her face was not by wild flowing raven hair, but by a neat blond pageboy cut. In fact, pretty stunning for a witch, but that’s another bundle of charms!
Obviously Bella did not look like your archetypical witch, but more like a cuddly, young nanny with poor dress sense. In truth, she would no doubt have ended up in such a vocation had her inquiring mind not gotten in the way. With that characteristic, not to mention an above average intelligence, there was nothing in Lodnun a girl could do other than try her hand at being a trainee witch, before becoming a mother. It does not need saying that a lot of these students end up being mothers; only five percent of the Institute’s yearly enrolments survive to become fully qualified witches. Just as well too, or the city would have been up to their… well, overrun by them. Those that fail to qualify who don’t become doting mums mostly end up as vanished, or as a gooey remnant on their dormitory carpet, the result of some practical spell going terribly wrong, or perhaps a jealous colleague’s spell going terribly well. The black arts are indeed an extreme and therefore deadly subject to study. Broom riding may seem rather straight forward, but try bronco busting without previous experience from one mile up and you’ll divine the essence of that danger. Of course you’ll probably not divine anything else, ever.
They begin teaching broom riding in the first year, along with navigation, the gossamer, herbalism, pharmacognosy, physiology, bone setting and aromatherapy. In the second year the course becomes more cerebral with sighcology, illusions, transmutology, and preliminary dissociation, but also includes physical self-defence in which Bella excelled. For those that survived to the final year, there were business studies, law and accountancy. Oddly this was the year with the highest dropout rate, which was a shame really because in the final month of the final term the remaining students learnt about counter spells and life insurance, not to mention health insurance, broom insurance, house insurance and so on. Without that knowledge, no student should dare to leave the safety of the Witches’ Institute to set up their own practice. Of course, the dropout figure is probably distorted by tragic casualties.
But Bella had been through all this and was now studying a post-graduate course in advanced sighcology and dissociation. The latter course when fully mastered allowed a witch to put her mind into the head of some lesser mortal, but because of the ethical issues that arose with this it was strictly controlled by the college laws. It was also exceedingly difficult to practice and few were capable of it. Hence it was a subject of research, a study in its infancy to which postgraduates were encouraged to apply themselves, they being considered a possible future threat to the senior witches and thus quite expendable. Of those that did attempt it, most did not remain witches for long. They became the mice or worms or whatever creature it was that they had dispatched their minds to, and often only for a short while; many a confused worm ended up as a blackbird’s dinner. It required a special talent; coincidently and quite unbeknown to the IW, Bella had an incredible talent. Amongst other things her mind rode bats and owls with ease. However, she had kept that fact carefully hidden by not being seen to practice. And she avoided the smaller prey species for, one supposes, health reasons.
She was also, in her spare time, pushing the frontiers of advanced interactive gossamer riding.
Curtis heard the dragon heaving itself up the tunnel behind him. He turned away from the soothing panorama and was relieved to see Bella walking toward him in front of Schmichael. Slung from one of the dragon’s horny plates was a large, heavy-looking sack.
“Where are you off to this time?” he asked mildly.
“It’s time for some action. We’re off to Lodnun; you too.”
“Me! Oh no. Oh no; no, no, no! I’m not riding on his back ever again. Not the way he dives in and out of here. No.” Curtis edged back against the solidity of the wall.
“Ow! And I thought you enjoyed the last ride,” commented the dragon with a camp smile, which managed to hide all but one of his teeth.
“No” responded Curtis succinctly.
“Well, how do you propose to leave here?” Bella smiled, climbing the dragon’s shoulder. “Or would you rather spend the rest of your days here with Schmichael and the treasure?”
“There must be another way. There is, isn’t there?” he implored. “Isn’t there?”
She slowly shook her head. “Nope.”
“Are you sure?” Bella sat patiently with unsympathetic eyes. He sighed, and lamely followed her up onto Schmichael’s neck.
“Okay Schmichael, let’s go!” she cheerfully shouted, and as the dragon leapt off the entrance lip into a plummeting dive, she let out a whoop of enjoyment.
“Aaaaauuuuggghhhhhhhh……” screamed Curtis, with bulging eyes and flapping cheeks, and then abruptly clamped his teeth shut because the rush of air into his mouth was threatening to blow him off the beast. Schmichael’s wings carefully unfolded, and with a great swoop they skimmed the treetops of the woods far below the cave. The cracking of branches and twigs were clearly audible, as the dragon dragged his tail through the treetops. ‘He’s doing this deliberately’ thought Curtis between fear and vexation. Their gliding flight left the trees and as the swoop approached its zenith, the great lizard’s wings began to row and slowly beat the air. They were rising with every leathery flap, and turning south toward Lodnun.
Cronje had ridden to the crest of the hill ahead of the column of troopers. He placed his telescope to his good eye; a silver patch covered his bad one. The spyglass confirmed his hope and he smiled with satisfaction revealing teeth like stones in an old cemetery - chipped, blemished, grey and twisted. On the road less than a mile ahead was a wagon pulled by a pony. In it were a number of hoplins, with several more walking in front and behind. Abruptly he turned his horse and cantered back to the column, which had just begun to ascend the hill.
On hearing Cronje’s report the captain addressed the soldiers, and ordered the plan of attack. “Two files. Flank ’em. Cut ’em down and dump ’em. No survivors - got it. If one of ’em is the reverend I want to see ’is corpse when we’ve done. Okay! Let’s do it.”
The column split into two files and charged up and over the hill. As they sped down the other side, Cronje leading the left file unsheathed his sword. The captain, leading the right fifteen, was slightly ahead with sword already drawn and pointing forward. So intent was he on claiming the first hoplin scalp that, although any man would have seen the blood lust in his eyes, he could see nothing but his prey. The company’s flag bearer raced close behind.
Minimous shouted and pointed high into the sky above the road ahead. Something dark was flying and judging by the flapping wings, rather fast. Blue gulped. It was speeding toward them and it was quite large. In fact big, very big, enormous! With a grin full of horribly sharp teeth, it appeared to be diving directly towards them.
The hoplins scattered, plunging into the cornfields on either side of the road. The blinkered pony however stubbornly plodded on in typical ignorance. The black shadow roared over their heads, and only as it passed did the pony become startled, and the hoplins become aware of the peril behind them.
The captain and his soldiers were so intent on riding down the hoplins that they failed to see their attacker until it was too late.
Schmichael landed on the road before the Lodnun troops. Even as the dragon folded his huge leathery wings, with the panicked horses around him pawing the air and neighing in terror, Bella slid down his scaly rump. Adjusting her hat and gown she strode purposefully back toward the hoplin cart, whilst the dragon from Schmorglund spat fire. The captain was thrown from his horse, landing on his head. Several other riders became unseated from their rearing mounts, which stumbling, galloped away from the dust and smoky heat of the dragon’s belched flames. Most of the riders however managed to turn their chargers about and fled with fearful yells back toward the hill crest.
“Ahem!” the dragon coughed, surveying some of Lodnun’s finest soldiery scuttling in the dust before him. “Ahem. A little joke of mine; I like humour, don’t you?” and he half closed an eye. The hussars, fallen and lying or sitting in the dust, stared at him in stunned open mouthed horror. “Ahem. What steps should you take to stop a dragon from attacking you? A-ha!”
The trooper furthest away, began to inch himself off the road. Schmichael noticed. “Don’t you know?” he asked, and the man froze. “Don’t any of you know? A-ha! Then I’ll tell you. A-ha! A-ha! BIG ONES!” He looked at their blank faces. “A-ha! A-ha! A-ha! Don’t you get it? It’s like a metaphor.” Uncertainly, he swung his head from side to side amazed at their denseness before asking “Do you want it explained? Then I’ll tell you. It’s like…” He lowered his black carbon-lined nostrils close to the ground, and looked eyeball to eyeballs at the nearest trooper, and whispered “Time to run.”
The effect was immediate. As one the terrified troopers scampered to their feet and flashing the heels of their boots, ran as fast as they could back up the road, trailing little streamers of dust behind them. And the dragon roared with laughter.
Apart from a couple of hapless soldiers that the dragon had initially snapped from the ground, crushed with his teeth and swallowed, the troop did manage to flee back to the crest of the hill, with only one other exception - the captain. He was furious. He rose to his feet, smeared the dust off of his chest armour, patted the dust out of his blue shirt sleeves then picked up his sword which he sheathed. Noticing a discarded but still loaded crossbow he retrieved that as well, and cradled it in his left arm. The captain was beside himself (but of course, only d’Earth could see both of them). Facing the dragon foursquare, mouthing obscenities mixed with niceties, he raised the crossbow whilst the shade of his spirit clasped his shoulders and pleaded with him to turn and run.
Falling on his head had made the captain quite insensible, in fact madder than he normally was. His finger squeezed on the crossbow trigger. With a sudden brief ‘Whump-Whoosh’, Schmichael’s head darted forward on a surprisingly long elastic neck, which unseated Kalashnikov who slid and tumbled down the dragon’s shoulder to land abraded and bruised on the ground with a squashy splat sound, his limbs spread in a star-shape. This was followed by a rather unpleasant metal-twisting, grinding and screeching sound.
Kalashnikov struggled to his feet and looking up at the dragon, watched with a lump in his throat. Hanging through the bloodied teeth and over the creature’s lip was the limp and mangled armour clad remains of the captain; but what intrigued the DI was the apparent look of dumb stupidity on the dragon’s face. The eyes stared in glazed thought. Abruptly Schmichael shook his head and lobbed what was left of the captain into a field.
“Paah!” he expectorated and then “Brrrrrr-rrr-rrr!” he blubbered, puffing his cheeks and lips, shaking his head vigorously from side to side. He spat again, and then noticing Curtis watching, the dragon suddenly became haughty and slightly embarrassed. “I just remembered how much I detest tinned food,” he explained sheepishly. “Gives me lousy indigestion, don’t you know. And for some reason bits get stuck between my teeth.”
“I can’t imagine,” Curtis smiled back. On the ground where the captain had made his literal last stand was a crossbow. The DI strode over and picked it up. He gasped, “Goodness me!” Holding the crossbow aloft for the dragon to see, he gabbled, “It’s a Peacemaker XV, the latest and best technology in the world! A bolt from one of these would pierce even your old hide. This must be my lucky day.”
“Really! Is that so?” Schmichael replied with great interest, and bent his neck forward for a closer look. Curtis found himself suddenly eyeball to eyeball with the dragon and felt at once very nervous. “Your lucky day” murmured the dragon with a nodding smile, and then withdrew. The words ‘IT WASN’T HIS’ suddenly screamed through the DI’s brain, and he fell back placing his hands over his ears. The DI knew that Schmichael had put the words in there. He hadn’t said them. The dragon had simply shouted a very real telepathic threat.
“Curtis! Curtis! Come here at once!”
“Bella calling” the dragon smiled, almost sweetly. Still shaking, the DI stood up. However, despite the dragon’s view of the crossbow and perhaps even to spite him, he gathered the weapon and slung it over his back. Then for good measure he hefted the captain’s sheathed sword as well, before going to find out what the young witch wanted.
Behind the crest of the hill, Cronje had brought a semblance of order and discipline to the troop. Finding the captain absent, he’d puffed out his chest and assumed an air of command.
“Attention!” he commanded. “Men! After all, we are all men, aren’t we?” The troopers watched him in wary silence. “Yessar!” he barked, and then waited for their response. This time, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the troop did affirm their gender. “Good. Now, do we have any experienced, social climbing or aspiring” someone sneezed, “dragon slayers amongst us?” He waited. There was a prolonged spell of cautious silence in which the troop to a man carefully stared two inches either side of Cronje’s head. There was of course an exception; there always is. “Think of the riches”, Cronje exhorted. “The fame! There’s not a damsel that wouldn’t swoon at the hero’s feet. Think of that. So, who will step forward?”
A skinny young lad, with straw blond hair and adolescent acne all over his face, found himself suddenly isolated from the rest of the troop by the famous reverse, single pace shuffle; and Cronje almost immediately face to face with him, even before he could think ‘faeces’. “Sir?”
“My goodness, what a sturdy chap!” exclaimed Cronje. “What’s your name lad?”
“George, sir. I er…”
“Splendid! Splendid! You will bear my lance; it’s the best in the troop. Jones (you miserable coward), give George your excellent crossbow. Abdul, your scimitar is sharpest. George will probably not need to use it, but loan it to him anyway.” The men reluctantly obeyed. George sneezed.
“Sir, how... er… how much riches exactly?”
“How much; more than you’ll ever need lad. More than you could even imagine. You’ll be famous throughout the land, to be sure.”
“And the damsels, sir?”
“Any, and as many as you could possibly want; they’ll be fallin’ at your feet mate, believe me.”
“Thank you sir, ’though I’m not sure I’ll need your lance, sir.” Again George sneezed, and then continued. “What spire is it you wanted climbed, sir?”
“Spire?” Cronje looked at the trooper in bemusement, and then re-ran the entire conversation through his mind.
“George, are you deaf?” he asked very, very quietly.
“Sorry sir. I didn’t quite catch that. I’ve got a cold. Could you say that again, please sir.”
“Oh! Well I’m sure you’ll get over your cold in no time,” laughed Cronje. “Ha! Ha! What a spirited fellow you are. Off you go lad. With your skill and courage, I almost feel sorry for the damned creature. But I’m sure you’ll make it a sporting and masterly fight for all of us to relish and learn from. Troop, repeat after me, ‘Go slay that dragon, George!’”
“GO SLAY THAT DRAGON, GEORGE” the troop obediently barked.
“Er…” gulped the hapless trooper. He heard that loud and clear.
“Now, no more fooling around lad,” said Cronje grabbing his hand and shaking it. He moved closer and whispered in the luckless youngster’s ear, “We don’t want to have you court-martialled for insubordination, do we?” Cronje took a military step back and smartly saluted the boy; he, in bewildered resignation, saluted back.
“Off you go George, and good luck. We’re all right behind you.”
The troop watched in silence as he trotted his horse up and over the top of the hill with the additionally acquired weaponry.
“If he’s got any sense, the poor sod’ll ride off into the sunset” muttered Jones to his neighbour.
George had reached the base of the hill. Half a mile ahead of him the huge bulk of the dragon lay. He sneezed again. ‘I’m going to die’ he thought, ‘Eaten by a dragon’, and he reined in his horse. He studied his weapons. ‘Mother would be ever so proud if I actually did kill the dragon’. The lance would be of no use he decided and cast it to the ground. ‘Silly thought. I’m going to die.’ Again he sneezed, and quickly looked toward the creature, but it remained motionless. ‘I could run, but Cronje would catch me for sure. Mother and father would be ever so ashamed’. He watched the dragon for a full five minutes. The beast breathed shallowly, but otherwise not a muscle twitched. ‘Perhaps it’s ill, or asleep. By the size of it, it must be old. Maybe I can sneak up on it, kill it before it even knows I’m here. Stealth; yes, that’s the way.’ He had second thoughts concerning the spear and picked it up again, then he walked his horse slowly forward never taking his eyes from the dragon. ‘I could still run.’ The oversized lizard still appeared lost in the slumber of one without a care in the world. ‘Riches, Cronje said, and girls. Lots and lots of… girls’. When he was little more than a hundred yards from the animal, he dismounted and tethered the horse. ‘It’s asleep; and I am George the world famous dragon slayer. Girls, I’m going to be rich!’ After unsheathing Abdul’s scimitar, George studied it for a while, but concluded that it would probably be more an encumbrance than effective weapon; it might stop him running away. He put it back in its scabbard which he placed on the ground. Nothing was going to be of much use if the fight ended up in hand-to-claw combat! Once more he decided against the lance. Jones’ crossbow however he would take, as backup, and carefully he wound up the firing mechanism. With the weapon tensioned, he taped two bolts in place for quick firing, and then slung it loosely over his back. Quietly he loaded his own hand crossbow, which he concealed behind his shield. Satisfied, he began a slow silent final approach on foot toward the dragon. ‘Twenty yards and then a bolt in the eye should kill it’ George figured from behind his shield. ‘That was the way to kill a dragon, wasn’t it?’
Schmichael was dozing. Only one eye was partially open, and this had watched the puny trooper slowly riding a horse down the hill, approaching with nervous caution. Now near, the soldier’s armour was clearly a couple of sizes too large for him. Indeed he seemed so small that the shield he carried almost hid him entirely from view. Boring decoration though thought Schmichael of the shield, which was emblazoned with a simple vertical cross, red on a white background.
George stopped twenty yards in front of the dragon. Careful not to make a sound, he crouched behind his shield and aimed his hand held crossbow over the top of his shield, targeting the half-open eye that watched him. “Oh sh...” Schmichael belched unexpectedly, a low rumbling burp which preceded a splash of white heat.
“Oh, excuse me,” rumbled Schmichael apologetically.
There was a blackened scorch mark along the ground, which ended in a pile of charred and partially melted armour and weaponry. George was gone in an instant, conspicuous by his incinerated absence. ‘Pity,’ thought Schmichael, ‘he seemed a nice boy, but why didn’t he just ride on?’
With his troop, Cronje crept disappointedly back behind the hill, and then dispatched a messenger to Lodnun.
Kalashnikov returned and observing the cremated remains with distaste, asked “What’s that?”
“That was a George,” the dragon replied quietly. “I heard them over the hill shout it. You wouldn’t believe they sent him to kill me. Mind you, I never have liked that name; can’t think why.”
Kalashnikov considered the cremation for some moments; a warbler scratchily sang in a nearby bush. “Oh well, never mind. But I must say, I’m glad I’m a friend” the DI uttered with an earnest smile, before turning away murmuring “Although I think I’d prefer to be a distant one.” He sat down and for no particular reason began thinking of Lodnun and his former colleagues.
“You know, I ought to arrest you for multiple manslaughter,” he said reflectively, “But then again I ought to arrest myself. After all, I am officially on the run, and no doubt there are ‘wanted dead or alive’ posters up all over Lodnun for me.”
“Listen ex Detective Inspector Kalashnikov. I was defending you and Bella and those little fellows, right! What was I supposed to do with them soldiers; kiss ’em?”
“No... But chewing them up and swallowing them…” Curtis shuddered. “And right in front of er, Bella too. Well that wasn’t very tasteful. She went quite pale, before running off to them hoplins. Anyway I wasn’t thinking about that. I was wondering how much I’m worth, alive.”
“Not much I shouldn’t think. And you have no idea how unpleasant, indeed as you say ‘distasteful’, it was. Try to imagine munching on a hard sweet only to discover you’ve got an egg in your mouth, and a rotten one at that!
“And there’s a thing! If all them damned egg collectors out there were forced to eat the raw contents of their murderous hobby, I bet most of them would stop collecting out of choice.”
“And those that didn’t give it up?”
“Sick both ends, followed by a painful death. And that’s too good for them! You know, if you lot had spent more time stopping people coveting and thieving birds’ eggs, society might have been a nicer place.”
Curtis mused on that for a while until his innate inquisitiveness got the better of him. “I don’t suppose anyone’s ever collected a dragon’s egg?” he asked.
Schmichael snorted. “No! And it would be very inadvisable. You know a lady dragon’s wrath is a really fearful thing….”
“Curtis!” Bella called.
“Yes,” Kalashnikov nodded. “I’m sure I can’t imagine such wrath”. The dragon grinned, as the witch strutted round from behind his tail.
“Ah. There you are!”
“Yes, here I am” confirmed the DI, looking himself up and down.
“And only slightly more worthless dead,” added the dragon quietly with a malicious grin. ‘What!’ mouthed the DI.
“You two are getting very chatty,” said Bella.
“Oh! Are we?” Kalashnikov responded in high-pitched innocence to her comment. “Then we’d better make sure it doesn’t happen again. Schmichael, you should be ashamed of yourself for deeming to so much as acknowledge my worthless presence. And as for you inspector, we’d better throw you back in the clink and chuck away the key for good measure! Such… such heinousness-ness! Tut-tut. Tut-tut!” Kalashnikov took a long inward breath of air.
“Finished?” Bella asked quietly. He bowed his head. “Good. There’s no need to be facetious, Curtis.”
“It’s just that I can’t do anything” he wailed. “There’s a crime going on, a big one, and I can’t do anything about it. And I’m a copper. I can’t even see it!”
“I don’t know about any big crime, but there is something you can do. We’re going to keep an eye on that troop for a few hours by taking the hill. I think we can probably dissuade them from pursuing those hoplins any further.”
“We? Oh, wait a minute.” A memory slid into place amongst the frazzled neurons of his brain. “Did you have something to do with those two dragons that scared off those thugs outside the Gloria church, the night before I was imprisoned?”
“Yes, that was my doing; but it was merely an illusion - the dragons, the fire and smoke, they weren’t real. Hand drawings are not real,” she added enigmatically, “they can’t hurt. But that aside Curtis, what the mind sees can terrify, and faced with unreality, well...” she laughed. “Now come along. Help us up, Schmichael.”
The dragon lowered its snout to the ground, and primly she stepped between the nostrils to climb up between his eyes and over his head to settle on his neck. Curtis stood dumb-mouthed.
“Come on Curtis” she demanded. The dragon smiled that mischievous glint yet again.
“You want me to climb up between his nostrils?”
“But he is real,” argued Kalashnikov gently patting the dragon’s snout, “And one tiny burp, I’ll be cinders without a ball!”
“Oh, do stop being such a weanling! Have a bit of trust, will you!”
“But… but…” Curtis stammered, and then began to lose patience himself. “You’re a witch, right? So why don’t you fly a broomstick, like all the others, eh? Why do you have to ride an enormous, fire breathing lizard is what I’m asking? Hmmm?”
The dragon burped, and he jumped. The DI’s sinuses cleared, and the seat of his pants felt warm.
“No offence, no offence. I didn’t mean to offend, Schmichael,” he hastily added making placatory gestures with his hands in its warm olefinic and vaporous breath. Briskly he side stepped around to the dragon’s flank.
“Would you feel happier on a broom?” Bella asked superciliously. “Hmmm... on an inch thick stick?”
It did not take Curtis any time to realise his answer.
“Well then, get your arse up here now!” As he scrambled over the dragon’s rough scales the DI realised that the subject of broomstick flying was a touchy one for her.
Indeed broomstick aviation was the one art that Bella had failed to master during her first year at the Witches College. She had flunked in all the tests and exams on the subject, which were of course mostly of a practical nature. Navigation was no problem, but piloting a broomstick was. She blamed this on her proprioceptive sensitivity, but in truth she was frightened of flying them. Indeed many of the first year dropouts were due to fatalities in broomstick aviation classes and practice. Somehow, miraculously, she had avoided serious injury, but then she’d never been a silhouette against the moon either, never having attained an aerial height greater than ten feet. This fear was largely due to the affordable broomsticks of recent years becoming notoriously and inexplicably unreliable. That fear was quite justified, and consequently those that could afford to, purchased the more expensive deluxe or luxury models. The best sticks however were the ancient hand-me-downs; despite being old, low-tech and basic they were worth more than their weight in gold these days. They were reliable. Bella, like most impoverished student witches, dreamt of being given a hand-me-down stick. Her own stick was a modern training model, and she used it as little as possible, and then mostly for sweeping her room.
The economic history of broomstick manufacture is in itself an interesting tale. Suffice to say that all broomsticks are now sold through a single agency, and that this agency owns the only surviving broomstick factory located somewhere in the Storm Mountains. The small goblin communities that live at this location do of course fly only the top of the range models. They can afford to since there are no competing manufacturers
Bella had had to re-sit the broomstick exams in both her first and second years. She just about managed to scrape through these, although that was largely due to her borrowing an older more reliable marque from one of her tutor’s which certainly increased her flying confidence, a little.
Meanwhile from another hill close by, wispy clouds drifted. There d’Earth had sat down and placed her scythe across her lap. Now that the conflict between soldiers and dragon was to all intents and purposes over, she had casually lit a panatella and stayed to view the scenery. Smoke wreathed about the cowl that covered her virtual skull. It wasn’t that she liked the taste and aroma of the burning weed; in fact, had she the living tissues that detect such things, she probably wouldn’t have. However she did like the visual effect of the smoke twisting, as it spiralled from between her teeth up through her nostrils and out again around her dark cowl. On many occasions she had heard comments amongst the living, such as ‘Ach! The smell of death!’ Indeed she would not be a good advert for the Cujimi cigar industry.