Serializations of the Hitherby Dragons novels

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– 8 –

– 8 –

“He’s still after us,” pants Cheryl.

She isn’t panting because pants are the opposite of hats, for clarity. She’s panting because she’s been exercising very hard.

Also, boots are the opposite of hats.

“I don’t want to die,” she says. “I haven’t even finished my one-use matter transmission system or my origami bombs.”

“We won’t die,” says Tom. “It’s just an adventure.”

“Um,” says Cheryl.

“There is no way,” says Tom, “that I’m going to let Edmund kill and eat me. That’s against everything I stand for!”

They’ve retreated back into the hat cemetery. They’ve crawled under the plastic ropes that fence it off with a still semi-conscious Peter held between them. They’ve tried to lose themselves in the natural geography of the hat cemetery, with the help of Tom’s extensive experience with dead hats and Cheryl’s folding ability, but even a blind wolf could follow the scent trail left by Tom’s cologne.

(Unless its nose was also blind, and possibly even then.)

“Tom,” whispers an echoing voice, through the hat cemetery. “Come help me, Tom. I can’t control it, Tom.”

It doesn’t sound desperate. It sounds mocking, and rich with hunger. But maybe that’s just how someone sounds when suddenly they’re driven to kill and eat you. It’s not a normal experience, you know, on either side.

“I need to eat, Tom. I need to be stronger so I can break my chains. Right now I’m hardly any stronger than a boy. But if I eat you, I’ll have your strength and not just mine. Won’t that be nice? Yours, and Peter’s, and — is that girl worth eating? You must be honest with me, Tom.”

“She’s sharp as a tack that’s stuck in another tack!” shouts Tom, and doesn’t understand at all why Cheryl hits his arm.

“I was praising you,” he says.

“Don’t —”

She flails. Then she says, unhappily, “Fine. I apologize for hitting you. You may praise me as freely as you like.”

“And she’s courteous!” Tom shouts.

There is a silence for a bit.

“Don’t humanize her, Tom,” comes Edmund’s voice.

“She is human —”

Tom looks at Cheryl. “Wait, are we still human?”

Cheryl shrugs.

“I think she is human,” Tom calls.

“I’ll let the others go if you’ll come to me,” says Edmund. “You’re the tastiest. I’ll eat them later, but I won’t eat them today. You’d be the best. We could have forever. You’d be so sweet.

Tom is shaking with fury and exhaustion.

“Sweet like your mother,” shouts Tom, in what probably qualifies as the worst attempt at insulting somebody ever. “I’m a science adventurer!”

One reason that this is an extremely bad attempt at insulting someone is that one is not supposed to compare oneself to the mother in question when using a ‘your mother’ style insult. Another is that ‘your mother’ style insults are part and parcel of a pervasively patriarchal society that science adventurers are normally inclined to deny their actual participation in. And one hardly needs point out the tackiness and problematic sexual connotations of the use of ‘sweet’ in this particular insult.

Most importantly, it is a bad insult because it leaves Edmund completely confused.

“Helissent was a science adventurer?” he says.

“No!” shouts Tom.

Then he staggers a few steps onwards, trying to look as if he’s somehow won or proved something. Lightning sets small fires on the hills.

“The cheek,” he says, to Cheryl. He glares at her, not for any particularly good reason. He doesn’t specify which of Edmund’s cheeks he means, or if he means one of Edmund’s cheeks at all.

Possibly there is a hat, nearby, that has a cheek.

Why would anybody do that to a hat?

Peter mumbles something again. He flails an arm. He knocks over a hat. It tumbles down a steep hat-slope into the night.

That was probably the one!

Tom opens his mouth. He’s going to yell something.

“He’s probably trying to provoke you,” says Cheryl. “You know. Into revealing our location.”

“Oh,” says Tom, a bit embarrassed.

“By shouting,” Cheryl explains.

“Oh,” says Tom again.

He hesitates.

Then an idea strikes him. “Can you fold the sounds of my yelling so that they seem to come from somewhere else?”

She looks at him. “Not without a sound-folding device.”


“Seriously, Tom.”


They stagger on. Tom falls down. He tries to get up again. He can’t. Not while pulling Peter along.

“Peter,” singsongs Edmund. “Peter. Are you still with them, Peter? You mustn’t trust them, Peter. He’s just tenderizing you for my supper, Tom is.”

Tom’s voice is nauseated. “There is nothing for it. We will have to do it. I do not want to do it. Not like this.”

Cheryl blinks. “You’re going to tenderize him?”


Peter is drooling a little.

“No. Well, maybe a little? I don’t know! I just wish he were conscious for this. He deserves self-determination in his hatting or not being hatted, but —”

Sheets of sudden rain tear across them. Lightning flashes in the sky overhead. It limns and silhouettes a beast that stares down at them from atop a hill of hats.

Tom closes his eyes in pain.

“Oh,” Cheryl says.

“Tom,” cries Edmund. “I can smell you. I’m almost on you. Wash your neck, Tom.”

Tom opens his eyes.

They are gone full black: the color of the House of Dreams.

“Forgive me,” he says, to Peter. “I am a prisoner of my circumstances.”

He holds his hat high. He brings it down on Peter’s head. It goes right over his face, just like Peter wants to stay asleep a little longer.

The boy’s boots twitch. His body shudders. He who was a boy of many directions is made over into a boy of one.

“Ptuh,” says Peter. It’s a spitting noise. He isn’t spitting into the hat. It’s just kind of what the noise he’s making sounds like.

The Edmund-beast is skidding down a hat-hill towards them. It is alternating sliding and loping. The beast can be seen to slaver when the lightning flashes behind it.

Peter sits up.

He shakes off the hat.

He is on his feet in one boneless maneuver. He takes in the world. His eyes burn red. He blurs into the sky like Vaenwode’s spear; he strikes true. He tackles Edmund: flings back the beast; pins him against a great shelf of hats.

Lightning strikes and thunder growls where Edmund had almost been. It hits a vaporous node. It ignites it, and behind the tumbling pair there is an explosion that fills the eyes of Tom and Cheryl with red-white glare.

Peter rolls off of Edmund.

Peter scrambles for a fez. He pulls it on. He glares at it. He hunts, desperately, in the pile, for any non-fez red hats.

Edmund stumbles to his feet.

“Not now,” snaps Peter. He waves Edmund away. “I have to find a non-ridiculous red hat!”

Edmund squints at him. Then he shrugs. He reaches into the pile of hats. He’s spotted a bit of red yarn. He tosses Peter a dead knit cap.

“Thanks,” says Peter.

Peter sinks back to the ground with relief.

“That was a bit of a thing,” he says.

Tom and Cheryl are staring at them. Tom is squinting and swaying. Cheryl is trying to finish a prototype origami bomb.

Edmund tilts his head.

“Peter,” he says.

“I know, I know,” Peter says. “You’re going to eat me. Can we talk first?”

Edmund moves. He attempts to rip Peter’s throat out. Peter isn’t there. There’s just a wreath of red around his hand. Peter has vanished into ninja-space.

He spirals back into being a little further up the hill.

“Apparently we can,” Edmund says.

He laughs.

“Oh, whatever. Sure. Fine. Talk to me.”

He waves Tom and Cheryl off.

“Get out of here!” Edmund calls. “This guy’s given his life for you. I think. I don’t know. Go!”

“That’s really gracious!” Tom yells back.

Tom,” says Cheryl.

“He’s practically my brother,” Tom says.


Cheryl attempts to imagine the family Tom grew up with.

“That’s not what I imagined,” she says.

“There was also a Taoist deity and the antichrist,” Tom says. “But they’re off in nunneries and rot. We had such good times.”

They drag one another off through the hills and valleys of the hats.

“So,” says Edmund.

“What’s it like for you?” Peter asks.

Edmund blinks at him. “It is very difficult, Peter. I am very hungry, and suddenly all of the people I care about appear to be made out of meat.”

“I don’t think I am,” Peter says.

Edmund sniffs the air.

“Keep telling yourself that,” Edmund says.

“I woke up,” says Peter, “and suddenly everything that was in me, everything that had been skew was straightened. Everything that had struggled in me was smoothed out. I looked up and I saw you, and I saw the tickling premonition of the storm, and I thought: Edmund is going to die. So I jumped. And it was beautiful. It was totally clean.”

“Oh, yeah,” says Edmund. “You’re really fresh. I’m looking forward to it.”

“It’s not for you,” says Peter.

“What isn’t?”

“My —” Peter flushes.  “Look, I don’t want to talk about myself as edible.”

“Aw,” says Edmund. “Mr. Perfected is embarrassed about his nutritional information. What’s your secret shame, Peter? Is it the trans-fats? The lack of vitamins? Ooh, do you contain more than the recommended daily allowance of sodium? Because you have to understand, Peter, that the nitty-gritty of nutritional concerns ought to be secondary to living a generally healthy and fulfilling life.”

“I have trim nails,” Peter says. “Perfectly neat. Look at those. How does that even happen? How does a hat do that?”

“He bound you,” shrugs Edmund. “I think. He trapped you in his hat-chains. His milliner’s gaol.”

“Am I bound?”

“Yeah,” Edmund says, softly.

“Huh,” says Peter. “Are you?”

Edmund makes a whimpering laugh.

“I have never felt this good,” Peter says. “Not in my entire life. You know. I don’t feel chained.”

“You’re not making this easy, Peter,” says Edmund.

“It’s not supposed to be easy,” Peter says.

“It is,” says Edmund. “Come on. Please. It’s one thing to talk to you. I can still talk to you. But I haven’t eaten anybody.”


“I haven’t eaten hardly anybody,” clarifies Edmund. “Hardly anybody. This isn’t right, Peter. You’re just standing there and I can hear your stomach, you’ve got food in your stomach, don’t you?”

Edmund tilts his head to one side. Then he looks ill.

“No,” he says. “You don’t, do you. That’s manna. You’ve gone all holy. Oh, Peter.”

“Holy?” Peter says.

He thinks about that.

He walks a bit away along the edge of the hill of hats.

“I think I finally understand why I told the Devil no,” he says. He turns. He smiles at Edmund. “I think I finally get it. It’s not because scissors ought to be beaten up. It because most of the people they fall on probably shouldn’t ought to die.”

“Damn it, Peter,” whispers Edmund.

Peter grins at him. The lightning shines behind him like a mandorla. “You think I ought to make this easy, scrub? You think you can just put on a white hat and suddenly it’s OK to come in and kill and eat me? Choke on this, Edmund: no.

“That’s just the hat talking,” Edmund says.

“Bad. Dog.”

“If you could see,” Edmund tries. “If you could see what it’s done to you. You’d beg to die. You’re begging me now. I can see it. It’s hidden but I can see it. You’re screaming. He’s sainted you, Peter. You. Of all people, you. You can’t possibly want to live that way.”

“It’s a bad puppy that kills and eats people,” Peter says. “This is a thing that should not be done.”

(He’s right, incidentally.)

Edmund licks his lips. He swallows.

“You’re a bloody frosh,” Peter adds. “You’re lucky I don’t tan your hide.”

“You’re a saint!”

Peter tilts his head to one side. “Well, yes,” he says. “Thank you.”

Edmund grinds his teeth. He’s going to do it. He resolves to do it. Later, when he has time to think about it, he’ll be angry at himself; he’ll writhe, unhappily, because it is a bad puppy, wolf, well, Edmund, really, a bad and human boy that would kill and eat people when they haven’t even given permission; but he’s going to do it. He can see the movements in his head. They’re all planned out. He slings low his lower jaw.

“One day,” Peter interrupts him, “you know, when there’s scissors in the head of your wolf —”

Edmund’s intentions stumble.

“— and scissors in its paws, and you’re laying there broken on the ground trying to remember how to breathe, and staring up with those dead white eyes, you’ll think, well, at least, Peter’s up there fighting for us. Up there in the sky with the scissors. So maybe somehow things’ll be all right.”

Edmund clicks his mouth closed.

There is a long silence.

“And will they?” he asks quietly. “Will they, Peter?”

“No,” Peter says. “No. Not really.”

He turns away.

“Nothing’ll be OK,” he says, “I think, until the jaguars fall.”

Edmund stares at him. Peter shrugs. Peter makes faces. Peter walks away. Edmund lunges after him, hungry, wild, but he trips on a slippery hat. Why do they even make slippery hats? But I guess the question answers itself.

Edmund falls.

Thank Heaven for slippery hats!

And he tries to get up. He tries to tackle Peter from behind. But it’s too hard. It’s too evil. It’s too complicated. He’s too hungry. He can’t do it. He can’t even do it. He isn’t even a good bad dog. “What,” he says, struggling, “what if I, I mean, maybe, maybe would you like me to not, not eat you, Peter?”

But however clever this trick might be, the red-hatted boy is gone.

“Spudgeflidgeon,” swears the cannibal. “Spudgeflidgeon. Fuck. Glip.”

I don’t know where he even got language like that. It is probably the corrosive influence of youth culture.

“Geffle-twonk,” swears he.

And he eats the corpses of the hats: tens of them, hundreds of them, he swells into a ball that rolls about the hills and vales of the hats until his wolf-gut digests it and unswells him, but this is extremely bad cannibalism, he would get an F in it twere it a subject, and it only makes him hungrier, in the end.



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