Beeches and Bluebells — Giles Watson's poetry and prose
Badbury Clump, near Faringdon, Oxfordshire.
HINGEFINKLE'S LOGBOOK (Seventh Instalment)
The Amazing Advent of Atropa and Amanita
“Oh fiddlesticks!” I said. “Now we are in a pretty pickle. Any suggestions, Agrimony?”
“Not really,” replied Agrimony grimly. “I suppose we could run for it, but I’ve a suspicion we’re surrounded. Besides, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered.”
I turned back towards Spitmucus astride his fire dragon. I should make clear, I suppose, that while Draco diminutivus obnoxiosious is, as its name suggests, only a pygmy fire dragon, it is still roughly five times the size of the average cart-horse, with talons big enough to disembowel an elephant, purplish scales the size of dinner-plates, and rather hypnotic rose-pink eyes. Like all fire dragons (and, as I have told Agrimony a thousand times, like all birds, too), it walks on its hind legs, the front legs being in this species almost vestigial, having a very limited manipulative capacity. Fire dragons are, of course, the only creatures of the genus Draco to possess the unique pectoral girdle which accommodates not only the forelegs, but also a pair of membranous wings. The specimen in question was undoubtedly a monarch among pygmy fire dragons, and as he stretched his wings and yawned a spurt of flame two ells long, almost dislodging his rider, I was reminded how much I coveted the skeletal remains of Draco diminutivus obnoxiosious. However, under the current circumstances, I considered it impertinent to enquire whether he might consider donating his body to science.
Besides, the fellow lodged between his shoulder blades was also a specimen of peculiar interest. You must remember that I had only seen Griswald and Snotgobbler in their full Goblinish glory for the space of a few seconds, before Agrimony turned them into sheep in a fit of impatience. Faced with so splendid a dragon, however, Agrimony seemed less disposed to take offensive action, so that I was able to get a good look at Spitmucus as he prepared to address his captive audience. Being a military sort, and apparently one who had spent some time in the cavalry, Spitmucus wore knee-length riding boots, a pair of white military jodhpurs, and a red jacket festooned with gold braid and medals. But there were holes in the ends of his boots, out of which there protruded a disconcerting array of gnarled, green toes, with hooked claws where the toenails ought to have been. And as the pygmy dragon shifted his weight impatiently from foot to foot, and leaned against the half-ruined wall, sighing smokily to himself, I perceived that there was a wide tear in the back of Spitmucus’s jacket, out of which there protruded a hairy green back with rather prominent vertebral processes. His face was particularly unpleasant, so I tried not to look at it, especially after he cleared his throat and let the slime dribble down his chin.
“Oh, do hurry up and get on with it, Pukeslime, or whatever your name is,” said the dragon impatiently, giving Spitmucus the kind of look that a cat might be expected to give to a flea. “If you’re going to say something, say it, and let me get on with my part of the job.” And then, I am proud to say, he looked at me, groaned audibly, and said, “Why did I have to be the one to carry this pompous old coot? It’s just my luck, I can tell you. On any other occasion, I’d smother him with chestnuts and have him gently toasted, if only for the pleasure of shutting him up.”
“Now don’t you get sassy with me Polygonatum,” snorted Spitmucus indignantly. “Leave the wetorical part of pwoceedings to the experts!”
“Hum,” I could not help interrupting, “What does he mean by wetorical?”
Polygonatum gave another exasperated groan. “He means rhetorical, but he has a speech impediment. Trust me to be landed with a rider who can’t tell his rs from his ws. Curséd, rotten luck!”
Spitmucus ignored this, and, assuming as imperious a posture as possible, he commenced his speech. “Wesistance is futile, you are completely suwwounded,” he began, and as if to confirm it, five other pygmy fire dragons stuck their heads in through the windows and hungrily eyed the occupants of the hall. “We must expwess our gwatitude, Llew Llaw Gyffes, for depwiving us, at one fell swoop, of the twoublesome Pwince Eugene. He weally was becoming wather superfluous. I begin to think that you may make a perfect Pwime-Minister in a puppet government. As for the west of you, I am under orders to fwow you all into pwison.” (Here the pygmy fire dragons exchanged exasperated glances, and Polygonatum drooled steam to think of the tasty meal going to waste.) “No doubt our illustwious leader Scabpicker will wish to qwestion you all, and mete out such punishment as tweachewous cwiminals deserve. But I wather suspect he will leave you to languish with the wats and mice for a while, before he gets awound to intewwogating you -”
“Oh cripes,” interrupted Polygonatum. “I’ve had a bellyful of this prattle. Let’s just eat up and go.”
“Stop gwumbling, you widiculous dwagon,” replied Spitmucus. “I intend to welish my victorwy speech.”
“Yes,” said Polygonatum, “and I intend to relish a hominid or two before the day is out, starting with the most talkative ones.” He stared intently at me, and then craned his neck around and gave Spitmucus a similar look.
It is hardly necessary for me to relate the seemingly interminable argument which followed, in the course of which Spitmucus told Polygonatum repeatedly that he was incowwigible, and Polygonatum recited recipes for jacket-baked Goblin, roasted Bard and deep-fried Druid. Suffice it to say that Spitmucus fobbed Polygonatum off with some story about the people in Llanbrunchforth being fatter and juicier still, and we found ourselves being jostled into the village stables and clapped in irons. To our dismay, we found Gladys there too, looking decidedly shaken, with singed hair and deprived of all her beloved inventions, even her pocket-watch. The mayor sat grimly in one corner, and Agrimony slumped exhausted and defeated against the wall. The conditions were miserable; the rats ate better than we did, and the Goblin guards delighted in oscillating between enlightened civility and compassion on the one hand, and unbridled uncouthness and cruelty on the other. Indeed, it was not unusual for a Goblin guard to be seen commiserating with one prisoner about his sorry plight in the most understanding tones, whilst trampling on the head of another. I entertained a particular dislike for Squelchfart, a monstrous fellow with a snot-encrusted nose ring who delighted in “telling tales” about us to the other Goblin guards, so that they punished us for supposed crimes in a most arbitrary and gratuitous manner. And on Fridays, the only food was black pudding.
Oh, my dear little Alias, you will hardly believe me when I tell you that we remained in that horrible place for nine years. The Goblins were very good at keeping us just about alive, but our faces grew gaunt, our skin sagged, and our hair grew thin and grey. And for most of those nine years, we were kept in an agony of suspense, wondering when Scabpicker himself would deign to visit us, interrogate us, and pronounce his sentence upon us. And when he did come, we realised that nothing could possibly have prepared us for that skilful artifice, that calculated duplicity, that snide dissimulation.
Imagine, dear boy, an exquisite violin, made of the very finest seasoned woods in the most sophisticated gnomish workshop. The grain of the wood and the gracefulness of the curves enchant the eye; the touch of the strings fills the fingers with that sensitivity which is the breath and the vibrance of flawless music. You take up the bow; it nestles in your hand as though it had always been there. It possesses perfect balance and poise; a bow which can pronounce the most delicate of arpeggios, and draw out the sublimest of semi-quavers until music is no longer music but spirit transformed into sound, the movements of quicksilver made audible, the magnified tremblings of a butterfly’s wing. You draw the bow across the first string, and the sound resonates inside the instrument like the best wine maturing in the barrel, tuned to perfection. The sound is tranquility in motion, beyond all explanation, beyond all science. And the second string is like the first, and the third compounds the two; the wondrous conjunction of wood, air and a stretched string fills your heart with the purest of joys. You begin to play a tune, and it dances, ephemeral and tantalising, on the flux of time.
And then, in playing the tune, you must needs play the fourth string. It is flat; dreadfully flat. To hear it is the purest agony. Teeth on edge, you turn the screw to bring it into tune, but there is no change - the screw turns and turns and the string never tightens. You whip the bow away from the strings as if stung by an insect, but the fiddle continues to play, three strings tuned to a mellifluous harmony, and one string nothing but a cacophonous discord - discord, tearing at your heart like a pair of disembodied claws. Whenever that string is played, it makes the others sound grotesque - hideous parodies of themselves. Your instinct is to smash the violin to pieces, but you cannot, for it has the mastery of you, and you realise in an instant that you must listen to this abomination for the rest of your life.
That is what Scabpicker was like. I dare not tell you too much of his conversation with us - of how he spoke with such compassion and such plausible weeping about the awful deaths of so many of our friends and relations beneath the breath of Polygonatum and his brood, and how he then broke into paroxysms of hilarity because of the mournful expressions on our faces. I dare not tell you of the ways he manipulated us until we were ready to tear one-another’s throats out, or of the sincere and tender-hearted tones in which he read out the death sentence for each one of us. I dare not tell you - for although Scabpicker is now dead, I can hear the screeching of that untunable string to this very day.
Oh, yes. Did I forget to tell you? Scabpicker is dead - most assuredly dead. Why, if he were still alive, I am sure we would still be in prison waiting for our sentences to be carried out. That was Scabpicker’s way.
But in point of fact, he died the very night he left our cells. We all felt it, when he died; it was as though the violin had suddenly been plunged under water: we could still hear it playing, but there was at last room in our minds for our own thoughts as well. The Goblin guards had kept Agrimony drugged and almost insensible for all of those nine years, but on the night that Scabpicker died, he awoke and was as lucid - and as rude - as ever. It was then that the ground began to shake, and a sulphurous, burning smell drifted through the cracks of the cell wall.
“Oh, capital!” said Agrimony sarcastically, looking at the village tinker, who was chained back-to-back with Gladys Sparkbright. “I should say that we’re out of the frying pan and into the -”
He never finished his sentence, for at that very moment, the roof was torn from above us, and we all gazed up at the serrated, silver scaled muzzle of the largest species of land animal in existence. The creature lurched above us, and fixed us with an eye filled with the purest malignancy. Fire licked about his lips, and as it did so, the head of Scabpicker dropped to the cell floor, the hair burnt away, the eyes sightless, the green skin taut and spattered with black, rancorous blood. The great beast hiccoughed, and a sheet of flame shot across where the ceiling used to be.
“Draco terribilis pyromanicus!” I cried in awe, aware, despite my fear, that this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Oddly enough, no one had ever managed to make a first-hand report of an encounter with Draco terribilis pyromanicus, and I aimed to be the first.
“Quite so,” said the dragon. “But I’m not so enamoured of these newfangled triple-barrelled Latin names. How would you like it if I called you Homo sapiens stultissimus? My name is Atropa, and I find it singularly appropriate.”
“Absolutely fascinating!” I whispered. “He seems much more intelligent than the Hydra.”
“Fascinating schmascinating,” grumbled Agrimony. “Why don’t you shut up, Hingefinkle? I have no desire to be turned into crackling to the accompaniment of a final recital of your usual pseudo-scientific claptrap.”
“That just shows how mentally deficient you humans really are,” snorted Atropa. “Crackling requires the presence of subcutaneous fat. But you lot are so scrawny that all of you put together would yield less crackling than the average house-mouse. Miserable fare indeed, after an entree of seventy Goblins, a hundred and fifty human slaves and six pygmy dragons. A pox on the lot of you.” To prove his point, he grabbed me by the ball and chain, dangled me upside down so that I had a wonderful view of his olfactory orifices, and pinched my skin between a clawed thumb and forefinger. Then, he gave such a snort of disgust that my chain melted clean through and I landed in a heap on top of Agrimony.
“Atropa? Atropa?” The voice came, I judged, from across the village square. It was unmistakably the voice of another fire-dragon, and from the tone of voice and the imperiousness of the demand, I deduced that this was Atropa’s mate.
“Oh, hamstrung halflings! It’s the wife! What does she want now?” grumbled Atropa, and then, louder, “I’m over here, dearest!”
“Well, what are you doing over there?” came the reply.
“Nothing of consequence,” said Atropa, disappearing from view.
“Did you find anything to eat?”
“Nothing particularly edible.” Atropa’s voice was receding rapidly into the distance.
“Well, come on then. I’m hungry,” came the reply, and after that, there was nothing but the whistling of the wind above our heads, and the soulless, hollow chattering of the teeth in Scabpicker’s disembodied head.
Over the horrible days that followed, Atropa and his paramour Amanita devoured the slowest part of the Goblin army (the faster part of it scattered this way and that, some, Spitmucus included, hiding beyond the Marches of the Elf-Lords; others fleeing east, where they no doubt drowned themselves in the ocean, preferring water to fire when compelled to make a choice). By the end of it, the streets were awash with Goblin blood, and the rivers ran rank and black for three weeks. But Atropa and Amanita were still not satisfied, and it was not until they had eaten all the inhabitants of Llanbrunchforth, Dinnerwy and Supperdarn (scrawny as they were after nine years of Goblin hegemony), that Amanita consented to return to her bower in the mountains beyond the Rancid Swamp. We watched the awesome spectacle of her return to hibernation from a hill near Gladys’s workshop, and then made our way back to rummage through her scattered belongings, salvaging whatever was not bent or broken beyond repair. And there, lying on a bench, was Gladys’s prototype of the humane mousetrap, with a mummified piece of cheese still hanging from the wire. The door was closed, but there was no sign of the mouse. Not that there would have been, of course, for Gladys’s explosives were remarkably powerful.
“Hum, Gladys,” I said when the inspiration hit me. “You know that mousetrap -”
My dear little Alias, I fear I have already overstepped the mark by subjecting so young a child as yourself to a description of what happened to Scabpicker. So don’t try to persuade me, for I am firmly resolved not to do it. Why, little Alias, your tender, innocent mind would be corrupted for life, were I to tell you what Agrimony said next.
Badbury Rings — туристическая достопримечательность, одна из Укрепленные холмы в городе Shapwick, Великобритания. Он расположен: 463 км от Лондон, 550 км от Бирмингем, 890 км от Ливерпуль. Читать далее