Thursday, November 27, 2008


The Train came around a curve this afternoon to find what looked like a lizard-shaped heap of scrap metal shuffling along the tracks. It was almost as large as the engine. When it saw the Train, it got off the tracks in a hurry, shedding machinery and pots and rusted sheet metal as it went. The noise was horrendous. It sat by the tracks as the Train went by, lashing its tail and hissing at us. The combination of clanking and hissing sounded like a steam engine about to explode. Its teeth were quite impressive. There were storm-drain gratings fitted over its eyes.

I only recognized the junk-heap creature from photographs and descriptions in books; I'd never seen one above ground. The Train had surprised a linewurm.

Small dragons and their relatives, such as salamanders, are usually content with anything metal. That's one of the many reasons to keep salamanders in lanterns; they've got a piece of shiny metal that's bigger than they are. Craftsmen's salamanders are generally happy with their ovens or forges. The ones in the great metal hulk of the Train - or, better yet, the floating cities - must feel like kings.

Large dragons usually have more refined tastes. They prefer gold. This is by no means true of all dragons, or even most, and the less obsessed ones can get rather unpleasant if you imply that it is. Quite a lot of dragons these days collect gears, or teapots, or umbrellas, or any number of the other pretty things that people make. I know of half a dozen off the top of my head who collect only books. (Frankly, I don't know why everyone doesn't do that, but you know how I feel about books.) Some don't collect anything - though most dragons consider those ones eccentric, or possibly just lazy. Still, all the most traditional dragons collect mainly gold and the occasional gemstone.

The linewurms - distant relatives of dragons, like giant white newts - have almost nothing in common with their winged cousins except their size and their love of metal. They certainly don't share their brains. Even the most uncivilized and temperamental dragon can outthink most smaller creatures; when you live for centuries and have a brain larger than an entire cow, you can hardly help it. Linewurms are considerably less intelligent. They spend all their time hoarding things. They prefer metal, but they'll settle for rocks. They're not picky. When they find something nice and hard, they glue it to themselves with the mucus they secrete, making their own armor plating to cover their soft bodies. They make claws out of old knives and pickaxes stuck to their toes. When two linewurms meet, provided they don't find each other attractive (and most of them don't), they fight. The fact that their claws and scales are secondhand and handmade makes them no less eager to use them. They fight, and the winner takes whatever useful bits and pieces are left on the floor when the loser runs away. The focus is generally on knocking armor off rather than actually hurting each other.

In other words, linewurms collect stuff to fight and fight to collect stuff. People have suggested that they could just leave each other alone, but the linewurms don't seem interested. Perhaps there's nothing better to do down in the caves.

The mucus that holds linewurm armor together eventually covers it with a thick white layer, like glue, giving the metal (and other assorted junk) a pearly shine and softening its edges. It reduces the clank of metal on stone to a quiet rustle. Old linewurms look like the ghosts of junkyards. The mucus also coats the insides of the caves where they live, turning rough stone passages into the smooth tunnels that linewurms prefer.

This, incidentally, is where linewurms got their name: they are wurms* that line stone with slime and line themselves with stone. It seems like rather a pointless cycle, but linewurms seem to like pointless cycles.

A rare few wurms have been known to make sculptures out of mucus, building them up layer by layer with the patience of a cave drip forming a stalagmite. Most don't have the patience.

The hardened mucus is said to be like tree rubber, only better, and there's gotten to be quite a trade in stolen linewurm upholstery. People go down into their caves and peel the coating off of the walls. It's a job for only the exceptionally brave or foolish. Linewurms grow to be several hundred feet long, keep themselves well armed, and suspect everyone they meet of being a thief. (To be fair, they're almost always right.) They're the main reason that abandoned underground villages stay abandoned. Linewurms like abandoned villages. People always leave such nice stuff behind. Fortunately, there's no shortage of abandoned underground villages in Hamjamser, so linewurms rarely need to bother with the inhabited ones.

Of course, not all linewurms live in the wild; quite a lot of them live in Mount Moler, primarily as garbage collectors. Once again, they're not picky. Lineworms have been known to live above ground, but only with completely opaque armor (they sunburn easily) and truly enormous sunglasses. It's extremely rare to see one out in daylight. I still have no idea what the one we saw today was doing. According to the passengers at the back of the Train, it got back on the tracks after we passed, clanking away behind us and lashing its tail angrily. It stopped first to pick up some of the pieces it had dropped.

Later in the day, when the Train stopped at the village of Hoggen, I found a horseshoe and the crank handle from some piece of machinery - a gramophone or pepper grinder, perhaps - caught on the front of the engine. Shreds of rubbery mucus still clung to them. The crank handle looked quite old, an elegant piece of Caroque brasswork. I brought them in and put them in my suitcase. I think I'll hold on to them for a while. It's not every day you get your hands on a piece of a linewurm's coat-hoard. Who knows - maybe I'll get a chance to return them someday.

* "Wurm" being the term for the amphibious variety of dragon. Not to be confused with "worm" (a limbless invertebrate), "werm" (any other limbless animal, such as furry snakes and nullipedes), "wirm" (a long, segmented robot), or "warm" (the same as hot, but slightly less so). "Wyrm" refers only to scaled dragons (though in some parts of Hamjamser, it's considered rude and therefore highly dangerous to use the word to their face). Why we can't just use completely different words for all of these, I have no idea.

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