Off Track and In the Hospital

I was happily getting caught up with my writing, when I hit a little snag.  I couldn’t breathe.  Turns out I had a pulmonary embolism– a blood clot in my lungs (actually more than one– more than several).  I spent some time in the hospital, and thought I could do some writing, since I had my trusty MacBook.  I didn’t take into account the IVs in my wrist making it all but impossible to type.

Well, now I’m home again and ready to get started again.  Maybe I can’t breathe easy, but at least now I can breathe.

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I’d like to take a moment to thank those who support me on Patreon.  These wonderful people are spending some of their hard-earned money to support me and my writing on a monthly basis.  They, along with those who buy my books, make it possible for me to write rather than take a second job.

I don’t want to whine about how little teachers are paid.  Most are already aware of this fact, and sadly, this is unlikely to change any time soon.  Many teacher spend their summers and their weekends working in malls and temp agencies.  I decided a few years ago that I would attempt to support my family by writing.  Some months I sell many ebooks and this seems like a good idea.  Other months… not so much.  The supporters on Patreon help by providing a regular monthly supplement to book sales that guarantee that I can keep doing what I’m doing.

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The Drache Girl – Chapter 17 Excerpt

“Of course I gave him the rope,” said Iolanthe.

Yuah shuddered.  No matter how close she had come to Iolanthe as a compeer, she had never forgotten that her sister-in-law and former employer could be merciless.  It still seemed like being given a cold slap, to be forced to come face-to-face with that realization.

“Why did you give him the rope,” asked Saba.

“I thought about giving him a pistol.  It would have been a much more appropriate way to do it.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t count on Mercy not to shoot me instead of himself.”

“He means, why did you help him kill himself,” said Yuah.

“She knows what I meant.”

“I don’t really need to explain it to you, do I Saba?  You have lived with us since you were born.  This family has been knocked down again and again, and I have done everything to build it back up.  After three generations of incompetence and stupidity, I have made the Dechantagnes a great family name again.  I will not let it be linked forever with treason.  Can you imagine a public trial and then an execution?  No, I will never allow something like that to happen.”

“He was your husband, though.”

“Yes.  He was. And at least he had the decency to take the honorable way out.”

Yuah couldn’t take any more.  She stood up and walked out of the parlor, down the hallway, and into the library. She stopped inside the door and took a deep breath.  Terrence was sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs with a book in his lap. A pair of reading glasses was perched on the end of his nose, but he wasn’t really reading.  She stepped over to him and placed her hand lightly on his shoulder.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Jerking her hand away from his shoulder as though it had been burned, Yuah turned and rushed back out of the room.  She leaned against the wall and placed both hands over her stomach.  She could feel the cane strips in her corset but couldn’t feel the life growing inside of her.  Continuing down the hallway, she stepped into the kitchen.  One of the lizardmen was sweeping the floor and a black-haired teenaged boy sat eating a sandwich in the corner.

“Can you drive me now, Marzell?” Yuah asked the boy.

It might have been difficult to find humans in Birmisia who were willing to work as servants, but it was surprisingly simple to find young men willing to serve as drivers for one of only two steam carriages on the continent. Terrence had given out that the position was open and had faced an avalanche of applicants.  He had narrowed the selection down to three boys, and had let Yuah choose her favorite.  She had chosen one of the Zaeri boys from Freedonia.  Marzell Lance was a serious young man of sixteen, with a shock of perpetually mussed black hair and brown eyes.  He always seemed to be hungry.  Though he had proven he could not only drive, but maintain the steam carriage, that was not why he had been chosen.  He, like so many coming from Freedonia, had arrived alone.  His sister, the only member of his family with him, had died on the ship.

Marzell jumped up and held open the outside door.  Yuah walked through and he followed.  The steam carriage was parked near one of the sheds.  It looked as pristine as it had when it had arrived on the ship from Greater Brechalon.  The minor damage caused by Yuah’s accidental diversion into a snow bank had been repaired, and from the rich black leather of the seats to the shining copper bonnet, it was clean and polished.

“I’ll have to fire up the boiler, Ma’am,” said Marzell.

“I know.  That’s fine.”

Marzell held out a helping hand for Yuah, as she stepped up into the passenger seat.  As she sat with folded hands in her lap, he stepped around to the back to light the boiler. He shoveled in several more scoops of coal for good measure as well.  Then, popping back around to the driver’s side, he climbed in.

“If I had known you were planning to go out, Ma’am, I would have fired it up earlier.”

“I know.  It’s all right.”

“Where did you want to go, Ma’am?”

“Please stop saying ‘Ma’am’.  I feel old enough as it is.”

“Yes, Ma’am.  Where did you want to go, Ma… Mrs. Dechantagne.”

“Take me to Miss Hertling’s home, please.”

Shifting the vehicle into gear, Marzell stepped on the forward accelerator, but with a still relatively cool engine, the steam carriage rolled forward very slowly.  It seemed as though it took at least five minutes to reach the gate, which was no more than fifty feet away.  Once the young man had gotten out and opened the gate though, steam had built up enough that they were able to start down the road at a respectable speed.  It was less than ten minutes later that Yuah was knocking on Honor’s door.

The front door of the small cottage opened and Honor stepped outside.  She immediately pulled Yuah to her and enfolded her in her arms.  Tears welled up in Yuah’s eyes, but she bit her lip and fought them back.  By the time her friend let go of her, she had screwed her face back into order.

“Come in.”

“Just a minute.  I didn’t know if you were here.  I have to tell Marzell that I’ll be staying a few minutes.”

“Tell him you’ll be a couple of hours and that he should come back,” said Honor.  “Don’t argue. Just do it.”

Yuah did as she was told, and as Marzell took off with a whoosh in the steam carriage, she stepped inside the Hertling house and closed the door behind her. Honor was stirring the contents of a large crockery bowl with a big wooden spoon.  Her typical brown and black dress was covered by a white apron, now stained with a brown smear.

“I made Hertzel a cake last week, so now I’m making one for Hero.”

“Chocolate?”

The Drache Girl – Chapter 16 Excerpt

Though winter was well on its way out in Birmisia, it was still cold enough at night—cold enough to bundle up tight, cold enough to blow steam in the air with your breath, and cold enough that the lizzies moved with their characteristically slow gate.  Police Constable Saba Colbshallow watched them from behind the corner of a warehouse building across the street from the dock.  He didn’t know why they were working in the middle of the night, but he hadn’t spotted them taking from the ship any of the curious long crates that he had seen on previous occasions.  He watched for more than thirty minutes as the reptilians moved freight.

Finally deciding that the activity represented nothing nefarious, Saba stretched his sore back, pulled a sulfur match from his pocket, and lit the oil lantern sitting on a barrel next to him.  Then taking the lantern with him, he made his way across the street.  There were half a dozen lizzies loading wooden crates onto a pallet that was attached to the crane to be loaded aboard the ship. As he approached, several of the lizardmen eyed him.  Half of them were taller than his six foot three, but all of them hunkered down to look shorter than they actually were.  It was a demonstration of submissiveness that the constable had grown used to over the years.  Coming to a stop beside the workers, he crossed his hands over his chest.

“Working awfully late, gentlemen.”

One of the lizardmen hissed.  Even though Saba was not fluent in the aboriginal language, he could tell it was a non-verbal expression of anger or annoyance.

“Identification.”

The two closest lizardmen held out their arms.  They each wore a wooden and twine identity bracelet.  Saba held up the lantern and read the engraved information on each of the tags.  “Finn: Serial Number 22211 BL”, and “Ishee: Serial Number 22214 BI”.

“All right.  The rest of you too.”

“Does there seem to be some problem, PC?”

Saba looked up to see the tall, silhouetted form of a man walking toward him from the direction of the ship.  When he reached the circle of lantern light he was revealed as Professor Merced Calliere.

“Good evening, Professor.  Just checking identifications.”

“I would appreciate some haste then.  These fellows have work to do.”

“So they’re working for you?  I noticed these two don’t seem to have night passes, and my guess is that the others don’t either.”

“Yes, well I needed help on what you might call an ad-hoc basis.  It’s very important business—government business. So I would prefer it if you not delay them any longer.”

“Then I had best let them get back to work,” said Saba.  “As soon as I check the rest of their identification.”

“This ship is leaving first thing in the morning.”  Professor Calliere hissed from between clenched teeth.

“I am aware of that, Professor,” said Saba, then to the other lizardmen. “Stick your arms out.”

The two reptilians that he had already checked stepped aside, and the remaining four held out their arms to show their identification bracelets. Calliere folded his arms and scowled. Saba read them off one by one.

“Maddy: Serial Number 19705 BL.  Sassine: Serial Number 18234 BI.  Guster: Serial Number 10100 BI.  Swoosy: Serial Number 11995  BI. Oh, I know you, don’t I?”

Saba looked up at the last of the lizardmen. It was a hulking brute, at least six foot five, though it was doing its best to seem shorter.  Its skin was deep forest green with large mottled patches of grey here and there.  It looked nothing like the lightly colored, rather short female that the constable had seen saved by Graham Dokkins from the new arrivals.

“Hold on,” said the constable, grabbing the wrist with the bracelet.

With a hiss that bordered on a roar, the lizardman leapt forward, grabbing Saba’s helmet in its clawed right hand as its momentum carried both of them backwards.  As he fell, Saba felt the alligator-like mouth clamp shut on his right shoulder. The gravel of the street flew as the man and the reptilian landed.  The latter flipped completely over and onto his back.  Saba jumped to his feet, his hand suddenly holding his truncheon even though he didn’t consciously grab it.  With a speed belying its supposed cold blood, the lizardman rolled onto his stomach, and without even getting up, launched himself into Saba.  They both fell into the pallet of crates, one of which splintered, spilling its contents onto the ground.  Saba swung his truncheon, but couldn’t tell if it connected. The next moment, his opponent was gone.

Jumping to his feet, the constable saw his attacker disappearing into the darkness, running south.  All of the other lizardmen were either running or were already gone.  Saba reached into his reefer jacket to feel his shoulder and pulled out a hand with several streaks of blood upon it.  His pulse was pounding in his ears.  Professor Calliere stood with his mouth open.  The ground was strewn with papers.

Saba reached down and picked up a fist full of the papers.  They were white, 8 ½ x 11 inch papers, covered on one side with long strings of numbers.  He kicked the damaged crate and it busted open completely, spilling out more of the number filled sheets.

“Papers?  Just papers?”

Calliere looked unhappily at the ground.

“What the hell are these?”

“Just… just some calculations.”

“Are all these crates filled with these calculations?”

Calliere bit his lip.

“Professor, you’re going to need to come with me.”

Calliere’s eyes shifted but then he nodded.

The Drache Girl – Chapter 15 Excerpt

Senta strolled down the white gravel street toward her home, singing the latest song to arrive from Brech.   The wax cylinder had come by ship exactly one month before, and it was already almost worn smooth by constant playing on the music box in Parnorsham’s store.

 

I’ll pay you a pfennig for your dreams,

Dreaming’s not as easy as it seems,

Images of her, are keeping me awake,

And so I’ll have to pay a pfennig for your dreams.

 

When Senta sang it, she replaced “images of her” with “images of him”. She thought that it made more sense for a girl to be kept awake with images of a boy than the other way around. If it had been her choice, she would have chosen a girl to sing the song, rather than the somewhat effeminate-voiced man on the recording.

“Not a very catchy tune.”

Senta turned to see a man emerging from behind a tree along the east side of the road.  It was the same tall, dark man that she had seen arriving on the Majestic.  His long, black rifle frock coat had made him blend into the background of the woods in the shadows of the late afternoon.  She didn’t need to guess that he was a wizard. She could see the magic aura amorphously floating around him.  She wondered if he could see hers.

“I’ve been waiting quite a while for you, sorceress.”  He smiled broadly, his thin-lipped mouth seeming abnormally wide across his heavy jaw line.

“I’m not a sorceress.  I’m just a little girl and you should leave me alone.”

“Ah, I know that game.”  He pulled the horn-rimmed spectacles from his upturned nose and wiped first his eyes and then the lenses with a handkerchief, replacing the glasses on his face and the handkerchief in his pocket.  “You make three statements.  One is true and the other two are lies.  Then I have to guess which is true.  Right?  Then I will have to say, you are a little girl.”

Senta crossed her arms and rocked back onto the heels of her shoes.

“My turn,” said the wizard.  “My name is Smedley Bassington.  I was born in Natine, Mirsanna.  I know nothing about magic.”

“That’s too easy,” said Senta.  “Smedley.”

“You should say Mr. Bassington.  After all, I am your elder.  One mustn’t be rude.”

“Okay, this one is harder,” replied Senta.  “I’m going to have to say, number two, you are my elder.”

Bassington took a step forward, and then another.

“Uuthanum,” said Senta, waving her hand.

“Uuthanum,” said Bassington, waving his hand in an almost identical motion.

It might have seemed as though the two were exchanging some kind of secret greeting.  In actuality, Senta had cast an invisible protective barrier between them. Bassington had dispelled the magic, destroying the barrier.

“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, the chosen apprentice of the most powerful sorceress in the world.  That is, after I found out Zurfina was here.  I had no idea where she had gotten to.  Here I was, checking out that idiot and his machine, and instead I find the two of you.”

“I think that’s too many statements,” said Senta.

He stopped in the middle of the road about five feet away from her.  A little wisp of wind whipped his short graying hair.

“Did she leave you here alone to take care of yourself?  That’s just what she does, you know?  She’s totally unreliable.”

“Are you allowed to use questions?” asked Senta, thinking to herself that this wizard did indeed seem to have her guardian pegged.

“Let’s not play that game,” said Bassington.  “Let’s play something a little better suited to our unique abilities.”

He held out his hand, waist high, palm down and said.  “Maiius Uuthanum nejor.”

Red smoke rose up from the ground just below his hand.  It swirled and coalesced into a shape.  The shape became a wolf.  Its red eyes seemed to glow and the hair on its back and shoulders stood up as it bared its dripping fangs and snarled at Senta.  She held out her own hand, palm pointed down.

“Maiius Uuthanum,” she said.

Green smoke rose from the ground below her hand, swirling around in a little cloud, finally billowing away to reveal a velociraptor with bright green and red feathers.

“A bird?” said Bassington, derisively.

The wolf lunged forward, snapping its teeth.  The velociraptor clamped its long jaw shut on the wolf’s snout, and grasped its head in its front claws.  The huge curved claw on the velociraptor’s hind foot slid down the canine’s belly, slicing it open and spilling steaming entrails out onto the gravel. A moment later, in a swirl of multihued smoke, both creatures disappeared again.

“Prestus Uuthanum,” said Bassington, placing his right palm on his chest, and casting a spell of protection on his own body.

“Uuthanum uusteros pestor,” said Senta, spreading her arms out wide.  She seemed to split down the center as she stepped both right and left at the same time.  Where there had been one twelve-year-old girl a moment ago, there were now four twelve year old girls who looked exactly the same.

The wizard waved his hand and said.  “Ariana Uuthanum sembor.”  All four Sentas found themselves stuck in a mass of giant, sticky spider webs.

The Drache Girl – Chapter 14 Excerpt

Had her lavender top hat not been tied onto her head with a thick strand of lace, Yuah was sure that it would have been blown away and lost.  The wind whipped around her face and she tightened her grip on the steering wheel.  Scenery was flying past her on both sides at an alarming pace—trees, houses, lizardmen, a group of playing boys.  Suddenly something appeared at her left elbow.  She carefully turned her eyes left without looking away from the road. One of the boys that she had passed was running beside the carriage.  A second later, the others had caught up and were running along beside her as well.

“Hey lady!” yelled one boy.  “Why don’t you open her up?”

“Yeah!” called another.  “We want to see this thing go!”

Yuah turned her attention back to her driving.  She was sure that the steam carriage would outpace the children shortly, but they stayed right at her side, encouraging her to increase her speed. When she finally pulled up to the front of Mrs. Bratihn’s, the boys gathered beside the vehicle, scarcely breathing hard.

“Why didn’t you go faster?”

“Yeah, how come?”

Tears welled up in Yuah’s eyes.

“I was going as fast as I could!”  She let out a sob.

“Don’t cry, lady,” said the oldest boy, apparently the one who had called out first on the road.  “Here. Let me open the relief cock for you.”

Yuah pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and pressed it to her face, as the boy moved around to the back of the vehicle and turned the lever.

“Be sure and don’t –sob– burn your fingers on the steam.”

“What are you boys doing here!” yelled Mrs. Bratihn, shooting out from the door of her shop with her own head of steam.  “Get out of here and leave Mrs. Dechantagne alone!”

“We didn’t do nothing!” yelled back one small boy, but they nevertheless went running.

“What did they do to you, dear?” asked the older woman, placing her arm around Yuah’s shoulder, once she had climbed down.

“They didn’t do anything.  It’s this damned steam carriage.  I hate it, but Terrence wants me to drive it.”

“Did he tell you that you have to drive it?”

“No, but he brought it all the way here from Brech.”

“Come inside and have some tea.”

Yuah followed Mrs. Bratihn into her shop where they both sat down on the couch.  Mrs. Luebking, who was already in the process of pouring tea, added another cup and handed one to each of the other women, then took the last for herself and sat down in a chair.  Yuah sipped the tea and took a deep breath.

“Now tell me all about it,” said Mrs. Bratihn.

“You know I used to watch the steam carriages zipping around Brech every day and I always thought it would be just ace to have one of my own.  But it’s just so bleeding complicated.  You have to push in the clutch to shift gears and you have to press down on the forward accelerator just the right amount when you let the clutch out.  And you always have to watch the steam gauge or the whole thing might explode.  It’s just too much pressure.”

“You should just tell your husband that it’s too much for you,” said Mrs. Bratihn. “Men love it when you act helpless anyway.”

“That may be fine for most,” replied Yuah, putting away the handkerchief, “but I’m a Dechantagne.  At least I am now.  There are different expectations for me than there are for most women.”

“Maybe you could tell him that you want a driver,” suggested Mrs. Luebking. “Back in Brech, most of the ladies have drivers.  After all, driving is a lot of manual labor.”

Yuah was thoughtful for a moment.

“That might work,” she said.  “Mrs. Calliere is always saying that women of our station should do less.”

“Mrs. Calliere, your sister-in-law?”

“Oh no, the professor’s mother.”

“Ah,” said Mrs. Bratihn.  “There you go.  Tell him you need a driver and Bob’s your uncle.  Now what else can we do for you today?”

“I need another new dress.”

“My dear, do you even have room in your closets?”

Yuah smiled slightly.  “I have spent rather a lot on fashion in the past few months.  But this one needs to be different.  I need a dress for shrine.  It needs to be a little more subdued.”

Mrs. Bratihn and Mrs. Luebking looked at one another.

“I’ll be quite frank, dear,” said Mrs. Bratihn.  “I don’t know anything about the requirements of your religion and what might be appropriate for your shrine.”

“Oh, there’s nothing special really.  I just need something nice, but simple, without a lot of extras—you know, no feathers or flowers, and not too much brocade.”

“I don’t know…”

“Here.  Just a moment.”

Yuah sat down her teacup, got up, and stepping out the door.  She was back a moment later, having retrieved a periodical from the steam carriage.  It was the Brysin’s Weekly Ladies’ Journal from Magnius of last year, the newest issue likely to be found in Birmisia.  Flipping it open, she showed the dressmaker a photograph of a woman wearing a new creation from Freedonia.  The dress was black and simple, featuring black lace around the waist and in a square collar around the neckline.  Though it was swept up in back and emphasized with a massive bow, the bow too was black and didn’t stand out from the rest of the dress.

“I think we may be able to do that,” said Mrs. Bratihn.  “Yes, yes, I quite like that.  It’s simple but elegant.  You may become a real trendsetter.  I imagine with you wearing that, many women here will want to copy it.  Of course you are always good for business, dear.”

The Drache Girl – Chapter 13 Excerpt

There were ten members of the party that gathered in front of the office of M&S Coal, Radley Staff included.  It was, he thought, small enough to be able to move quickly through the forest, and large enough to be safe from marauding dinosaurs.  There were the Kanes, who were dressed alike in khaki shirt and pants, with pith helmets and frock coats.  Femke Kane was attractive even without make-up and with her male hairstyle, but standing next to her husband Ivo, the two looked like a pair of peculiar twins.  Beeman Glieberman had also traded his sharp suit in for khaki explorer garb with a heavy jacket, but Aakesh Mouliets wore a great coat of ferret skins over his traditional Mirsannan clothing.  Miss Jindra had exchanged her very feminine gowns for black leather pants and knee high boots, but was covered with a butterfly cape coat, the lavish black hood of which made her beautiful features look dark and mysterious.  Three lizardmen had been hired to carry equipment. Staff had made sure that he had learned their names—Cheebie, Sanjo, and Mimsie.  Then there was the local boy that had been hired as a translator, the brother of the young waitress from the bakery café.

The boy was looking down the street.  Staff followed his gaze and saw Senta standing on the corner looking back. She stood out in a beautiful new lavender dress the way the first spring flower stands out in the snow.  The boy turned his back.

“Have a fight with your girlfriend?” wondered Staff.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” said the boy angrily.

“All right.  Are the lizzies ready to go?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, then turned to the three reptilians and spat out a series of hisses.

The creatures each picked up a pack that would have bowed over a strong man, and tossed them onto their shoulders.  The human members picked up their belongings and everyone started down the street.  Each of the men had backpacks, though they were tiny compared to the burdens of the lizardmen.  Staff and Kane each carried a rifle, and all of the humans except Graham and Miss Jindra had pistols on their belts.  They made their way through town and past the train station, then continued due south.

There was very little snow on the ground now.  Though the days had not grown much warmer than those of a month previous, the skies had been clear for weeks, and the great drifts had slowly dissolved into splotchy patches of white among the trees.  Staff turned up the collar of his reefer jacket and pulled his gloves from his pocket.  As he put them on, he slowed until Miss Jindra came beside him.

“Fifty miles?”

“Approximately,” she answered.

“That’s a long way.”

“I imagine you will have to build a railway line,” she said.  “I also imagine that you could purchase the unused ties and rails left over from the track recently completed from Mallontah.  I am surprised you have not already done so.”

“I have,” said Staff.  “I meant it was a long way for you to walk.”

“I will manage.”

“I hear you are staying with Zurfina.”

“Zurfina the Magnificent,” corrected Miss Jindra.

“I was surprised, after seeing her remove you from the ship.”

“She’s not only very powerful, but she’s very wise.  She can teach me a great deal.”

Staff couldn’t put his finger on it exactly, but there was something slightly off about Miss Jindra.  Her speech and her expressions were not quite the same as the young sorceress he had met on the S.S. Arrow.  He slowed and let her go ahead.  When he did so, he was joined by Femke Kane.

“Your friend seems nice,” she said.

“She’s more of an acquaintance really.”

“Do you have many women acquaintances, Mr. Staff?”

“That does indeed seem to be my curse.”

“Perhaps you should get yourself one or two close friends,” she said. “Then acquaintances would become less important.”

He turned and looked at her face.  He had noticed before that Mrs. Kane wore no make-up.  He noticed now for the first time that she did not have the thin arched eyebrows that every other woman he knew maintained.  Hers were almost as thick as his.  If she hadn’t been naturally pretty, he could see how she might have been mistaken for a man.

They walked all day, stopping only briefly at lunch and teatime.  Late in the afternoon, they reached the edge of a small clearing, and Staff called a halt.  They quickly cleared a large space and built a fire.  Pulling assorted canned goods from their packs, they opened these and then set them on flat rocks at the edge of the fire to heat. By the time the food was ready, the party was arrayed around the flames in a circle, messaging their tired feet, or making themselves comfortable for the night.

“How far did we walk today?” asked Beeman Glieberman.

“Fifteen miles,” answered Ivo Kane.

“It has to be more than that,” said Aakesh Mouliets.  “I have walked this far many times back in Brechalon.”

Staff paid little attention to the conversation.  He was staring at the curious sight on the other side of the campfire.  All three of the lizardmen, having laid down their burdens, were lying on their stomachs with their chins pointed towards the fire and their tales pointed at the darkening forest.  They were pressed right up against one another.  In this position, they looked more like alligators than upright humanoids. Graham Dokkins sat beside them, using one of the creatures as a leather back support pillow.

A tremendous roar sounded somewhere to the south.  Both women made startled noises.

“Bloody hell,” said Kane.  “What kind of beast do you suppose that was, Staff?”

“I don’t know,” said Staff.

“Tyrannosaurus,” said Graham.  “I’d say it was a pretty big one too.”

The lizardman he was leaning against hissed something at him.