Table of Contents
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright Â© 1987 by Tom Holt
Cover illustration by Bella Pagan. Cover copyright Â© 2012 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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First US e-book edition: September 2012
Also by Tom Holt
Expecting Someone Taller
Who's Afraid of Beowulf?
Here Comes the Sun
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Paint Your Dragon
Wish You Were Here
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Nothing But Blue Skies
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don't Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages
To My Mother
fter a particularly unrewarding interview with his beloved, Malcolm was driving home along a dark, winding country lane when he ran over a badger. He stopped the car and got out to inspect the damage to his paintwork and (largely from curiosity) to the badger. It was, he decided, all he needed, for there was a small but noticeable dent in his wing, and he had been hoping to sell the car.
âDamn,' he said aloud.
âSo how do you think I feel?' said the badger.
Malcolm turned round quite slowly. He had had a bad day, but not so bad that he could face talking badgers - talking
badgers - with equanimity. The badger was lying on its side, absolutely still. Malcolm relaxed; he must have imagined it, or perhaps the bump had accidentally switched on the car radio. Any connection was possible between the confused chow mein of wires under his dashboard.
âYou're not the one who's been run over,' said the badger, bitterly.
This time, Malcolm turned round rather more quickly.
There was the black and white corpse, lying across the road like a dead zebra crossing; yet he could have sworn that human speech had come from it. Was some rustic ventriloquist, possibly a Friend of the Earth, playing tricks on him? He nerved himself to examine his victim. A dead badger, nothing more, nothing less; except that there was some sort of wire contraption wrapped round its muzzle - a homing device, perhaps, attached by a questing ecologist.
âDid you say something?' said Malcolm, nervously.
âSo you're not deaf as well as blind,' said the badger. âYes, I did say something. Why don't you pay more attention when people talk to you?'
Malcolm felt rather embarrassed. His social equipment did not include formulae for talking to people he had just mortally wounded, or badgers, let alone a combination of the two. Nevertheless, he felt it incumbent upon him to say something, and his mind hit upon the word designed for unfamiliar situations.
âSorry,' he said.
âYou're sorry,' said the badger. âThe hell with you.'
There was a silence, broken only by the screech of a distant owl. After a while, Malcolm came to the conclusion that the badger
dead, and that during the collision he had somehow concussed himself without noticing it. Either that, or it was a dream. He had heard about people who fell asleep at the wheel, and remembered that they usually crashed and killed themselves. That did not cheer him up particularly.
âAnyway,' said the badger, âwhat's your name?'
âMalcolm,' said Malcolm. âMalcolm Fisher.'
âSay that again,' said the badger. âSlowly.'
The badger was silent for a moment. âAre you sure?' it said, sounding rather puzzled.
âYes,' said Malcolm. âSorry.'
âWell, Malcolm Fisher, let's have a look at you.'
The badger twisted its head painfully round, and looked at him in silence for a while. âYou know,' it said at last, âI was expecting someone rather taller.'
âOh,' said Malcolm.
âFair-haired, tall, muscular, athletic, without spectacles,' went on the badger. âYounger, but also more mature, if you see what I mean. Someone with presence. Someone you'd notice if you walked into a room full of strangers. In fact, you're a bit of a disappointment.'
There was no answer to that, except Sorry again, and that would be a stupid thing to say. Nevertheless, it was irritating to have one's physical shortcomings pointed out quite so plainly twice in one evening, once by a beautiful girl and once by a dying badger. âSo what?' said Malcolm, uppishly.
âAll right,' said the badger. âSorry I spoke, I'm sure. Well, now you're here, you might as well get it over with. Though I'm not sure it's not cheating hitting me with that thing.' And it waved a feeble paw at Malcolm's aged Renault.
âGet what over with?' asked Malcolm.
âDon't let's play games,' said the badger. âYou've killed me, you needn't mess me around as well. Take the Ring and the Tarnhelm and piss off.'
âI don't follow,' said Malcolm. âWhat are you talking about?'
The badger jerked violently, and spasms of pain ran through its shattered body. âYou mean it was an
?' it rasped. âAfter nearly a thousand years, it's a bloody accident. Marvellous!' The dying animal made a faint gasping noise that might just have been the ghost of laughter.
âNow you have lost me,' said Malcolm.
âI'd better hurry up, then,' said the badger, with weary resignation in its voice. âUnless you want me dying on you, that is, before I can tell you the story. Take that wire gadget off my nose.'
Gingerly, Malcolm stretched out his fingers, fully expecting the beast to snap at them. Badgers' jaws, he remembered, are immensely strong. But the animal lay still and patient, and he was able to pull the wire net free. At once the badger disappeared, and in its place there lay a huge, grey-haired man, at least seven feet tall, with cruel blue eyes and a long, tangled beard.
âThat's better,' he said. âI hated being a badger. Fleas.'
âI'd better get you to a hospital,' said Malcolm.
âDon't bother,' said the giant. âHuman medicine wouldn't work on me anyway. My heart is in my right foot, my spine is made of chalcedony, and my intestines are soluble in aspirin. I'm a Giant, you see. In fact I am - was - the last of the Giants.'
The Giant paused, like a television personality stepping out into the street and waiting for the first stare of recognition.
âHow do you mean, Giant, exactly? You're very tall, but . . .'
The Giant closed his eyes and moaned softly.
âCome on,' said Malcolm, âthere's a casualty department in Taunton. We can get there in forty minutes.'
The Giant ignored him. âSince you are totally ignorant of even basic theogony,' he said, âI will explain. My name is Ingolf, and I am the last of the Frost-Giants of the Elder Age.'
âPleased to meet you,' said Malcolm instinctively.
âAre you hell as like. I am the youngest brother of Fasolt and Fafner the castle-builders. Does that ring a bell? No?'
âYou didn't even see the opera?' said Ingolf despairingly.
âI'm afraid I'm not a great fan of opera,' said Malcolm, âso it's unlikely.'
âI don't believe it. Well, let's not go into all that now. I'll be dead in about three minutes. When you get home, look up the Ring Cycle in your
Boy's Book of Knowledge
. My story starts with the last act of
. The funeral pyre. Siegfried lying in state. On his belt, the Tarnhelm. On his finger, the Mbelung's Ring.' Ingolf paused. âSorry, am I boring you?'
âNo,' Malcolm said. âGo on, please.'
âHagen snatches the Ring from Siegfried's hand as Brunnhilde plunges into the heart of the fire. At once, the Rhine bursts its banks - I'd been warning them about that embankment for years, but would they listen? - and the Rhinedaughters drag Hagen down into the depths of the river and drown him. For no readily apparent reason, Valhalla catches fire. Tableau. The End. Except,' and Ingolf chuckled hoarsely through his tattered lungs, âthe stupid tarts dropped the ring while they were drowning Hagen, and guess who was only a few feet away, clinging to a fallen tree, as I recall. Me. Ingolf. Ingolf the Neglected, Ingolf the Patient, Ingolf, Heir to the Ring! So I grabbed it, pulled the Tarnhelm from the ashes of the pyre, and escaped in the confusion. To here, in fact, the Vale of Taunton Deane. Last place God made, but never mind.'
âFascinating,' said Malcolm after a while. âThat doesn't explain why you were a badger just now, and why you aren't one any longer.'
âDoesn't it?' Ingolf groaned again. âThe Tarnhelm, you ignorant child, is a magic cap made by Mime, the greatest craftsman in history. Whoever wears it can take any shape
or form he chooses, animate or inanimate, man, bird or beast, rock, tree or flower. Or he can be invisible, or transport himself instantaneously from one end of the earth to the other, just by thinking. And this idiot here thought, Who would come looking for a badger? So I turned myself into one and came to this godforsaken spot to hide.'
âBecause it's godforsaken, and I'd had about as much of the Gods as I could take. They were after me, you see. In fact, they probably still are. Also the Volsungs. And the Rhinemaidens. And Alberich. The whole bloody lot of them. It hasn't been easy, I can tell you. Luckily, they're all so unbelievably
. They've spent the last thousand odd years searching high and low for a ninety-foot dragon with teeth like standing stones and an enormous tail. Just because my brother Fafner - a pleasant enough chap in his way, but scarcely imaginative - disguised
self as a dragon when he had the perishing thing. I could have told him that a ninety-foot dragon was scarcely inconspicuous, even in the Dawn of the World, but why should I help him? Anyway, I very sensibly became a badger and outsmarted them all.'