Carefully, in case she decides to whack me too, I take the shovel off Nom.
“Obviously, she just got a bit worked up,” I tell the assembled kids, the unconscious Jeki and their still-prone Pappi (who’s shown no inclination to get up, I must have really caught him good). “She just got a bit over-excited. I can’t take her with me.”
“Awww!” Nom protests.
“Shush,” I tell her. She does. Which is quite cute.
“She may not be able to go with you,” Pappi says, seriously. “But she can’t stay here.”
“Oh, come on,” I protest, a little desperately. “She’s tiny. She made a mistake. You don’t want her to die up there, do you?” He’s just staring at me impassively. “Look, everyone makes mistakes, where’s your heart and is anyone going to check on wossername?” I point at the annoying girl Nom clocked with the shovel who is still face down in the mud, making bubbles.
A couple of the kids make shocked noises and rush to her side.
“The rules are the rules,” Pappi says. “If we let them slide, it’s a slide into anarchy.”
“Calm down,” I say. “Everything’s not going to, like, erupt into chaos just because-”
“She leaves,” he insists, steel in his tone.
I glare at him for a moment, but he’s not budging. I unleash a torrent of swearwords I picked up from Daisy. A few of the kids starts crying.
“Stop blubbering, you!” I point at them with the shovel. They stop, shocked. “You’re not ruddy banished, are you? It’s poor Non here.”
“Nom,” says Nom.
“Nom,” I correct myself and then add, pointedly: “Sorry, Nom. Poor little tiny, little defenceless little Nom.”
Pappi is still just watching me flatly. He’s not budging an inch.
“Fine. We’re going, but we’re taking this.” I point at the shovel. No-one tries to stop me. I stare around them pointlessly for a bit in case someone, anyone, protests at Nom’s exile. No-one does. Weird bunch. Eventually, they’re all just looking at me expectantly. “Right, fine, right, come on then, Nom!”
“Yay!” she says and takes my hand as I grump off up the slope to the city that’s going to eat us both.
At the top of the tunnel, I get a face full of icy wind spiked with snow that makes me gasp.
Wasn’t expecting that. It was warmish down in the mines. Must be geothermal… you know, stuff, going on down there. In response to the drop in temperature the Tik furs, which have been bedraggled and scraggy around my shoulders for a while now suddenly fluff up and lengthen until they’re like a fluffy coat.
“Brisk!” Nom exclaims happily and runs in a circle in the dusting of snow on grey rock.
The mine is literally a hole in the ground at the base of… a hole in the ground. We’re in a basin, the edges of which rise all around us. Snow has snagged and frozen on the lip, forming strange shapes of icy topiary. A path runs up one slope. Nom scampers up it.
“This way to the city,” she calls to me, seemingly delighted to be out of the mine.
“Don’t run too far ahead,” I tell her. “Something could get you.”
Obediently, the little worm-faced girl scampers back to my side and looks up at me.
“I’m back,” she says.
“You are,” I agree.
“Fluffy,” she says, pulling at some strands of Tik fur.
“Yep,” I say, wondering if she’s going to ask to come under them for warmth.
Apparently not. She doesn’t seem to be shivering or anything. Maybe her thick worm skin gives her some protection from the cold. That’s good. Wish she hadn’t talked about being hungry though. My stomach growls.
“Now you mention it, I could eat too. You got any food?”
“Nu-uh,” she shakes her head.
“Is there a market in the city?”
“I think so,” she says.
“Do you have any money?”
“We may be in a bit of a pickle.”
She looks at me uncertainly, obviously having expected me to be able to magic up something to eat with my powers of being older than her. She glances back at the mine, her normal source of food. Perhaps the gravity of her situation is starting to sink in.
She points at the mine with a stubby finger, “Pappi has the food.”
“That’s right. Shoo doesn’t. In fact, that’s not the only thing Shoo doesn’t have. Guess what, kiddo? Shoo doesn’t have a clue. Remember that. Important information.” She frowns up at me. “What? Realised what you’ve saddled yourself to yet, little one?”
Nom looks from the mine to me and back again, doing some complex small child calculations in her little worm head.
“Crap,” she says eventually.
“Yep,” I say.
She adds a few more robust swearwords.
“Woah! Did you pick them up from me?”
“Yep,” she says with a smile.
I nod, “good stuff. Don’t say them all the time though, people will think you’re an idiot. Save them up for when you really need them.”
“Okay, Shoo,” she says with a resolute nod and smiles at me again.
Gods, small children are grotesquely endearing. Do they do it on purpose, I wonder, or is it genetic? It’s got to be a survival thing. It works. I have a profound and annoying urge to protect this little worm-headed beastie. I bet I did this to Mondey back in Footfall. It’s probably why he didn’t sell me, which would have been the sensible thing to do.
My, how the worm has turned.
No offense, Nom.
Right now, this one is now looking back and fore between the mine and me like she’s still working something out. Her little face is scrunched up in concentration, which is cute of course. She’s going to say something child-stupid but adorable like “Shoo, are mines made of chocolate?”
Nom points at the shovel.
“We could… hit Pappi with the shovel and take the food,” she suggests and blinks up at me proudly with those big eyes of hers, all innocence and enthusiasm.
Well, that’s not good.
It was still adorable though.