Soul Music Page 5

'Glod, I don't think-' Imp began. Under his hand the strings trembled. The old woman looked at the thing. 'Ten dollars,' she said. 'Ten dollars? Ten dollars?' said Glod. 'It's not worth two dollars!'

'That's right,' said the old woman. She brightened up a bit in a nasty way, as if looking forward to a battle in which no expense would be spared. 'And it's ancient,' said Glod. 'Antique.'

'Would you listen to that tone? It's ruined.'

'Mellow. You don't get craftsmanship like that these days.'

'Only because we've learned from experience!' Imp looked at the thing again. The strings resonated by themselves. They had a blue tint to them and a slightly fuzzy look, as though they never quite stopped vibrating. He lifted it close to his mouth and whispered, 'Imp.' The strings hummed. Now he noticed the chalk mark. It was almost faded. And all it was was a mark. Just a stroke of the chalk . . . Glod was in full flow. Dwarfs were said to be the keenest of financial negotiators, second only in acumen and effrontery to little old ladies. Imp tried to pay attention to what was going on. 'Right, then,' Glod was saying, 'it's a deal, yes?'

'A deal,' said the little old lady. 'And don't go spitting on your hand before we shake, that sort of thing's unhygienic.' Glod turned to Imp. 'I think I handled that pretty well,' he said. 'Good. Llisten, this is a very-'

'Got twelve dollars?'


'Something of a bargain, I think.' There was a thump behind them. Lias appeared, rolling a very large drum and carrying a couple of cymbals under his arm. 'I said I'd got no money!' Imp hissed.

'Yes, but . . . well, everyone says they've got no money. That's sense. You don't want to go around saying you've got money. You mean you've really got no money?'


'Not even twelve dollars?'

'No!' Lias dumped the drum, the cymbals and a pile of sheet-music on the counter. 'How much for everything?' he said. 'Fifteen dollars,' said the old woman. Lias sighed and straightened up. There was a distant look in his eyes for a moment, and then he hit himself on the jaw. He fumbled around inside his mouth with a finger and then produced Imp stared. 'Here, let me have a look,' said Glod. He snatched the thing from Lias's unprotesting fingers and examined it carefully. 'Hey! Fifty carats at least!'

'I'm not taking that,' said the old woman. 'It's been in a troll's mouth!'

'You eat eggs, don't you?' said Glod. 'Anyway, everyone knows trolls' teeth are pure diamond.' The old woman took the tooth and examined it by candlelight. 'If I took it along to one of those jewellers in Nonesuch Street they'd tell me it's worth two hundred dollars,' said Glod. 'Well, I'm telling you it's worth fifteen right here,' said the old lady. The diamond magically disappeared somewhere about her person. She gave them a bright, fresh smile. 'Why couldn't we just take it off her?' said Glod, when they were outside. 'Because she's a poor defencelless olld woman,' said Imp. 'Exactly! My point exactly!' Glod looked up at Lias. 'You got a whole mouthful of them things?'


'Only I owe my landlord two months' re-'

'Don't even fink about it,' said the troll levelly. Behind them, the door slammed shut. 'Look, cheer up,' said Glod. 'Tomorrow I'll find us a gig. Don't worry. I know everyone in this city. Three of us . . . that's a band.'

'We haven't even practised together properlly,' said Imp. 'We'll practise as we go along,' said Glod. 'Welcome to the world of professional musicianship.' Susan did not know much about history. It always seemed a particularly dull subject. The same stupid things were done over and over again by tedious people. What was the point? One king was pretty much like another. The class was learning about some revolt in which some peasants had wanted to stop being peasants and, since the nobles had won, had stopped being peasants really quickly. Had they bothered to learn to read and acquire some history books they'd have learned about the uncertain merits of things like scythes and pitchforks when used in a battle against crossbows and broadswords. She listened half-heartedly for a while, until boredom set in, and then took out a book and let herself fade from the notice of the world. SQUEAK! Susan glanced sideways. There was a tiny figure on the floor by her desk. It looked very much like a rat skeleton in a black robe, holding a very small scythe.

Susan looked back at her book. Such things did not exist. She was quite certain about that. SQUEAK! Susan looked down again. The apparition was still there. There had been cheese on toast for supper the previous night. In books, at least, you were supposed to expect things after a late- night meal like that. 'You don't exist,' she said. 'You're just a piece of cheese.' SQUEAK? When the creature was sure it had got her full attention, it pulled out a tiny hourglass on a silver chain and pointed at it urgently. Against all rational considerations, Susan reached down and opened her hand. The thing climbed on to it - its feet felt like pins - and looked at her expectantly. Susan lifted it up to eye level. All right, perhaps it was a figment of her imagination. She ought to take it seriously. 'You're not going to say something like “Oh, my paws and whiskers”, are you?' she said quietly. 'If you do, I shall go and drop you in the privy.' The rat shook its skull. 'And you're real?' SQUEAK. SQUEAKSQUEAKSQUEAK- 'Look, I don't understand,' said Susan patiently. 'I don't speak rodent. We only do Klatchian in Modern Languages and I only know how to say “My aunt's camel has fallen in the mirage”. And if you are imaginary, you might try to be a bit more . . . lovable.' A skeleton, even a small one, is not a naturally lovable object, even if it has got an open countenance and a grin. But the feeling . . . no, she realized . . . the memory was creeping over her from somewhere that this one was not only real but on her side. It was an unfamiliar concept. Her side had normally consisted of her. The late rat regarded Susan for a moment and then, in one movement, gripped the tiny scythe between its teeth and sprang off Susan's hand, landed on the classroom floor, and scuttled away between the desks. 'It's not even as if you've got paws and whiskers,' said Susan. 'Not proper ones, anyway.' The skeletal rat stepped through the wall. Susan turned back to her book and ferociously read Noxeuse's Divisibility Paradox, which demonstrated the impossibility of falling off a log. They practised that very night, in Glod's obsessively neat lodgings. These were behind a tannery in Phedre Road, and were probably safe from the wandering ears of the Musicians' Guild. They were also freshly painted and well scrubbed. The tiny room sparkled. You never got cockroaches or rats or any kind of vermin in a dwarf home. At least, not while the owner could still hold a frying-pan. Glod and Imp sat and watched Lias the troll hit his rocks. 'What d'you fink?' he said, when he'd finished. 'Is that all you do?' said Imp, after a while. 'They're rocks,' said the troll, patiently. 'That's all you can do. Bop, bop, bop.'

'Hmm. Can I have a go?' said Glod. He sat behind the array of stones and looked at them for a while. Then he rearranged a few of them, took a couple of hammers out of his toolbox, and tapped a stone experimentally. 'Now, let's see . . .' he said. Bambam-bamBAM. Beside Imp, the guitar strings hummed. 'Without A Shirt,' said Glod. 'What?' said Imp. 'It's just a bit of musical nonsense,' said Glod. 'Like “Shave and a haircut, two pence”?'

'Sorry?' Bam-bam-a-bambam, bamBAM. 'Shave and haircut good value for two pence,' said Lias. Imp looked hard at the stones. Percussion wasn't approved of in Llamedos either. The bards said that anyone could hit a rock or a hollow log with a stick. That wasn't music. Besides, it was . . . and here they'd drop their voices . . . too animal. The guitar hummed. It seemed to pick up sounds. Imp suddenly had a nagging feeling that there was a lot you could do with percussion. 'Can I try?' he said. He picked up the hammers. There was the faintest of tones from the guitar. Forty-five seconds later, he put down the hammers. The echoes died away. 'Why did you hit me on the helmet at the end there?' said Glod, carefully. 'Sorry,' said Imp. 'I think I got carried away. I thought you were a cymball.'

'It was very . . . unusual,' said the troll. 'The music's . . . in the stones,' said Imp. 'You just have to llet it out. There's music in everything, if you know how to find it.'

'Can I try dat riff?' said Lias. He took the hammers and shuffled around behind the stones again. A-bam-bop-a-re-bop-a-bim-bam-boom. 'What did you do to them?' he said. 'They sound . . . wild.'

'Sounded good to me,' said Glod. 'Sounded a whole lot better.' Imp slept that night wedged between Glod's very small bed and the bulk of Lias. After a while, he snored. Beside him, the strings hummed gently in harmony. Lulled by their almost imperceptible sound, he'd completely forgotten about the harp. Susan awoke. Something was tugging at her ear. She opened her eyes. SQUEAK? 'Oh, nooo-' She sat up in bed. The rest of the girls were asleep. The window was open, because the school encouraged fresh air. It was available in large amounts for free. The skeletal rat leapt on to the window-ledge and then, when it had made sure she was watching, jumped into the night. As Susan saw it, the world offered two choices. She could go back to bed, or she could follow the rat. Which would be a stupid thing to do. Soppy people in books did that sort of thing. They ended up in some idiot world with goblins and feeble-minded talking animals. And they were such sad, wet girls. They always let things happen to them, without making any effort. They just went around saying things like 'My goodness me', when it was obvious that any sensible human being could soon get the place properly organized. Actually, when you thought of it like that, it was tempting . . . The world held too much fluffy thinking. She always told herself that it was the job of people like Susan, if there were any more like her, to sort it out. She pulled on her dressing-gown and climbed over the sill, holding on until the last moment and dropping into a flower-bed. The rat was a tiny shape scurrying across the moonlit lawn. She followed it around to the stables, where it vanished somewhere in the shadows. As she stood feeling slightly chilly and more than slightly an idiot, it returned dragging an object rather bigger than itself. It looked like a bundle of old rags. The skeletal rat walked around the side of it and gave the ragged bundle a good hard kick.

'All right, all right! ' The bundle opened one eye, which swivelled around wildly until it focused on Susan. 'I warn you,' said the bundle, 'I don't do the N word.'

'I'm sorry?' said Susan. The bundle rolled over, staggered upright and extended two scruffy wings. The rat stopped kicking it. 'I'm a raven, aren't I?' it said. 'One of the few birds who speak. The first thing people say is, oh, you're a raven, go on, say the N word . . . If I had a penny every time that's happened, I'd SQUEAK. 'All right, all right.' The raven ruffled its feathers. 'This thing here is the Death of Rats. Note the scythe and cowl, yes? Death of Rats. Very big in the rat world.' The Death of Rats bowed. 'Tends to spend a lot of time under barns and anywhere people have put down a plate of bran laced with strychnine,' said the raven. 'Very conscientious.' SQUEAK. 'All right. What does it - he want with me?' said Susan. 'I'm not a rat.'

'Very perspicacious of you,' said the raven. 'Look, I didn't ask to do this, you know. I was asleep on my skull, next minute he had a grip on my leg. Being a raven, as I said, I'm naturally an occult bird-'

'Sorry,' said Susan. 'I know this is all one of those dreams, so I want to make sure I understand it. You said . . . you were asleep on your skull?'

'Oh, not my personal skull,' said the raven. 'It's someone else's.'

'Whose?' The raven's eyes spun wildly. It never managed to have both eyes pointing in the same direction. Susan had to resist trying to move around to follow them. 'How do I know? They don't come with a label on them,' it said. 'It's just a skull. Look . . . I work for this wizard, right? Down in the town. I sit on this skull all day and go “caw” at people-'

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