Serializations of the Hitherby Dragons novels

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– 9 –

– 9 –

Joffun looks up. Cheryl is staring at him through the bars of his prison.

She says, “I nuked it. I burned it. I impaled it. I electrocuted it. I broke it. And still, no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, it keeps folding itself back into being. It is a snake-wroth in the air and sea, now. It is a thing of fire and water, now. I dream of it, it is coming for me, it will devour me and crack the earth and live forever in the pain that you svart-elves put it in, and we who long to live shall die and it that wants to die shall live forever. Why?

Joffun says quietly, “I don’t have to talk to you, you know. There’s gonna be a general amnesty soon. On account of Gotterdammerung is coming, and all.”

“I heard,” Cheryl says.

“Gonna get drafted,” says Joffun, “and then they’ll bring me that boy’s heart, so I can make weapons for ’em. And then, while nobody’s looking, it’s off down beneath the surfaces of things for me, and back to my wife and child.”

Cheryl blinks at him. Then she shakes it off.

“That’s fine,” she says. “You don’t have to talk to me. Talk to me anyway.”


She shrugs. “Can’t live with a cracked world, you know. I guess I’ve ruined it for you. That snake’ll fold its way down where the svart-elves live and I don’t think that you can stop it where I haven’t. If nothing else, cause it came to me, so long ago, knowing that I was the one to end it.”

Joffun stares at the tic-tac-toe boards on the walls. He points at one, thoughtfully. Cheryl’s won that one. He points at another. He frowns.

“How are you doing that?” he asks.

Cheryl looks blankly at him. “Doing what?”

He laughs. He laughs rather a lot. It almost pulls him off his seat. Then he says, “Fine. Guess I must like you, even if you’re as tall as two houses and have hair like a sun-bird’s spit. Show me a bit of this snake.”

She shrugs. She folds a paper crane into a miniature giant paper serpent and tosses it to him. It hisses. It snaps at him. He catches it, holds its jaw open, and peers down its throat. After a while, he shoves its tail in its mouth to distract it, flushes it down the toilet, and leans back on his bunk in thought.

That snake never causes trouble for anybody! Flushing living wicked miniature paper snakes down the toilet must be all right.

But don’t do it to a real snake!

“It’s not a snake,” he says. “It’s an idea, right?”


“So you can’t stop it by folding,” he says, “or even by cutting. You could try a really sharp goat, but —”


“Well, I wouldn’t count on it, is all. People who get involved with really sharp goats, they tend to end up cutting themselves.”

“I don’t want to do that,” concedes Cheryl. “I like myself in one piece!”

“Then,” says Joffun, sitting up again, “I think you’re gonna have to die.”

She pales.

“Look,” he says. “It’s an Ouroboros, right? Around and around and around it goes? And in its ending its beginning’s wove? Kill it and consign it to the sea and the splash another serpent weaves? That kind of thing?”

“Maybe,” she says.

“Some stuff,” he says, “you can’t put down, because you’re part of the problem. The harder you push, the rougher it goes. You’re its death but you’re its life, too, so if you’re there — I mean, I’m not saying that you cut your wrists and it’s all over, just, if you don’t die, I don’t think it’s gonna die either. It wouldn’t be proper smithing, if it’d done.”

“Oh,” she says.

She looks at her wrists. She looks at Joffun. “That’s not nice,” she says.

“Hey,” he says. “Least you get the chance to take a giant snake down with you. I’m probably going to die of cirrhosis.”

She squints at him. “Least,” she says, with black humor, “you’ll get to take the booze down with you, I expect.”

He stands up.

He holds his hand out through the bars.

“A strange game,” she says, and chokes back her fear, and she shakes his hand.

He nods.

“That’s life,” he says, and she lets him go.



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