THE DROP OF A HAT by Luke Chmilenko and GD Penman (EXCERPT)
Today, we’re especially thrilled to be featuring a book from one of our own!
GD Penman has collaborated with the formidable Luke Chmilenko on a brand new series of comedic fantasy-adventures, starting with Hat Trick Book 1, The Drop of a Hat. We’re very excited to be able to share an excerpt to celebrate publication day, but before we dive in to that, let’s find out a little more about the story…
A powerful wizard and a lowly kobold experience a magical meeting of the minds in the first book of this comedic fantasy-adventure series.
Absalom Scryne, the greatest wizard of his generation, has been murdered. There’s no other explanation for why his consciousness now resides in his well-worn but perfectly pointed hat.
Well, he isn’t going to take that lying down . . . or hanging from a branch, as the case may be. Instead, he’ll hop on the head of the first foul-smelling kobold that comes along and convince it that it’s in everyone’s best interests for them to undertake the epic journey through the Badlands—past horny necromancers, rustic werewolves, and rampaging ogres—back to the shining city of magic at the heart of civilization, where he will promptly kick the backside of whoever it was that finally managed to stab him in the back.
Assuming, that is, he can teach a kobold how to use magic, survive all the roaming adventurers who consider a kobold to be a very minor payday, and prevent anyone else from claiming the wealth of arcane knowledge that is now bound within the rather handsome piece of haberdashery that he has become.
THE DROP OF A HAT is out today from Podium Publishing! You can order your copy, including the audiobook, HERE
In a hole in the ground, there lived a Kobold.
This was not a fully furnished and tastefully decorated hole in the ground with all of the modern appliances such as doors or walls. Rather, it was the muddy gap between two half-rotten tree roots that the soil had simply forgotten to fill in.
It was not the sort of place that a cohort of adventurers might gather at the behest of a wise wizard to discuss where their grand quest might take them. They likely wouldn’t have even visited for the purposes of pest-control given that it was much more economical to farm and fatten up rats to produce “kobold” tails when they were requested in exchange for a quest reward.
Now when I told you that in this hole lived a kobold, I may have been slightly underselling things.
There was, at the lowest level, a bountiful feast of invertebrates for those with a taste for the crunchy things in life. Then slightly above that on the food chain, kobolds. It should be said that kobolds are not generally known to be solitary creatures. A singular kobold tends to have the sort of life expectancy usually only known to creatures that awaken from a pond and frantically fornicate to produce the next generation before nature realizes she has forgotten to furnish them with the necessary organs to eat anything.
The plural of kobold is kobolds. The singular is prey. They are born in vast litters of blind wriggling pink pellets and seek to maintain that quantity of warm bodies pressed in around them throughout their lives, whether for their comfort in a cold world, or to serve as armor. Protection in numbers taken to its natural extreme.
But what is a kobold?
The answer to this question is not one that I had often considered in my old life. To me, they were barely a footnote in the annals of history. But if you were to ask others, you may have come across a wide variety of answers. A farmer, for instance, will tell you that they are tantamount to a plague, eating anything that isn’t nailed down. Which is not to say that they won’t also attempt to eat anything that is nailed down, only that they tend to have less success doing so.
If you were to ask one of the charmingly deranged people that makes a study of monstrous creatures, then you’d be told that they were a Bipedal Muroidomorph. Which will of course mean absolutely nothing to anyone who has not submerged themselves so thoroughly in academia that they are liable to get decompression sickness if they ever make an attempt at returning to reality.
Perhaps the best person to ask would be those who are most familiar with the creatures, adventurers! If you were to ask an adventurer what a kobold was, they would tell you, half a copper each, but bulk discounts apply.
Observe, the kobold. It looks as though someone has taken a rat, inflicted some unpleasant skin diseases upon it, grown it to the height of a dwarf and then forced it to walk upon its hind legs.
Given the fuzzy cuteness associated with many rodents, we should probably make some amendments to your mental picture. Strip away the fur and replace it with the kind of wrinkly skin that would make a scrotum consider investing in a better skincare routine. From there it is only a matter of exaggerating the aforementioned skin conditions and inflicting a smorgasbord of nervous tics.
All of this, unfortunately, ignores the kobold’s most distinctive feature. Its smell.
You could use it to strip paint and clear sinuses at a range of fifteen feet. There are elements of decaying meat, spoiled milk, excrement and more to be found, and it is also important to note, for clarity of your mental image, that this is not some natural trait like a skunk might wield in its own defence. To a kobold, hygiene is something that happens to other people.
With all of this in mind, let us examine our kobold in particular. Currently lying sleeping amidst a heap of its kin. Most of its surface was caked in such a layer of dried on muck that it would require a fast-flowing river or a chisel to discover its natural coloration. At present, it is making the most of its current foetal position to suck on the blunted end of its well chewed tail.
In the language of the kobolds, which is barely a language at all, this kobold is named Ig. Were you to scrub aggressively at the areas of a kobold that nobody in their right mind would have any interest in, then you might discover that Ig was a male kobold. If Ig were to discover this, it is unlikely that he would know what to do with that information. Like hygiene, matters of romance and procreation were entirely alien to kobold-kind. They tend to reproduce primarily through accidental collision while attempting to find a more comfortable spot in the kobold heap to sleep.
What makes this kobold special? What was it about him, surrounded on all sides by equally grotesque specimens, that draws our attention? Why was he the one kobold in this entire hole that we care about in the slightest?
Because he needed the bathroom.
Were he to relieve himself in his current position, then he would become rather unpopular among those sleeping on the lower layers of the pile, though he would likely improve their cleanliness significantly. But Ig, he was better than that. He was a kobold of some dignity, by the rock-bottom standards of kobolds. He was not some freshly laid pink morsel, he was an adult, almost a year and a half old, when he needed to piss, he could go outside and find a tree.
So, half-asleep, and still absently gumming at his tail-tip, he began to wriggle his way out. Passing by parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters and brothers, with several of those titles typically attached to each individual kobold in his journey towards the trickle of cold air coming down from the forest above. He could not smell the freshness of the air, as his nose had shut down out of self-defence many hours ago, but he could feel the breeze.
As he emerged from his hole in the ground, it was with no small amount of nervous energy. There were not many things in this world of ours that a kobold could not consider a predator. Owls, foxes, wolves, they’d all make a meal of a kobold. A decent sized rabbit could likely give Ig a run for his money if it came to a straight up fight.
Kobolds did have opposable thumbs, which allow their hands to do many of the terrible things that human hands do, and some have supposed that it is simply their lack of will to do harm that renders them so helpless. After closer examination of the kobold psyche, I can assure you that it is not some inherent benevolence. It is incompetence. There is no task in this universe so simple that a kobold cannot find some way to bugger it up.
Case in point, after tentatively creeping from his hole in the ground, Ig scuttled through the dew-damp undergrowth to the side of the river, squatted down, and urinated on his own feet.
Cursing and grumbling as much as any living creature without an actual language can, he made his way past the other midden heaps of his people to the river where they fetched their drinking water and gave his feet a quick splash in the shallows after making sure that the vicious and well-fed pike that sometimes took kobold toes was nowhere about.
To those of you concerned about the fact that the kobold waste product was flowing directly into their drinking water, I can assure you, there is a good reason that the kobold’s life expectancy is typically measured in days. It is a miracle that they still exist, given how intent they seem to be about wiping themselves out through sheer stupidity.
After paddling his feet in the stream, Ig turned slowly to take in the world. This forest was all that he had ever known of it. Safe as things got for kobolds, thanks to its great distance from civilization, or anything of value that civilized people might want to fight over. This was a borderland, the outer edge of every map, the middle of nowhere. Nothing ever changed here, nothing ever happened here, and that was for the best, because change did not bode well for kobolds.
They might have been bizarrely resilient, capable of existing in almost any climate, but the one thing that they were not resilient to were other monsters. Even the lowliest goblin could have come through and made these hopeless creatures subservient to it, and from there it was always a short distance to ritual sacrifices or cannon fodder. Neither of which did much to extend the already miniscule lifespan of the kobold.
Yet something had changed. Something small enough that nobody else would ever have seen it, but that someone who lived every moment of their life within a single square mile of their grotty little hole in the ground would notice despite having the attention span of a ferret on stimulants.
There was something in the trees on the far side of the river.
At first, Ig did what came naturally to him, which was making a valiant attempt at pissing himself again before realizing that his bladder was already empty, and then running as fast as possible back towards his muddy little hole in the ground.
Kobolds are not particularly fast, or known for their stamina, so he made it about halfway back before becoming winded. At which point he flung himself face first into the long grass and remained as still as possible. Stopping to catch his breath, and also absently wondering why whatever it was that he’d seen hadn’t already eaten him.
After several minutes of shivering in terror and setting all the dry spring grass around him rattling like a maraca, it slowly dawned upon Ig that he may not have been facing the final moments of his rather meagre life.
He emerged from the long grass that he had taken for a shelter, nose poking out to lead the way and discovered to his immense surprise that nothing was in fact chasing him. Given that this was the first time in his life that nothing was chasing him, this came as something of a shock to Ig, and his surprised condition probably informs many of the decisions that followed after.
His beady little eyes narrowed as he set his brain, such as it was, to the task of deciphering what he had seen, and why he was not currently being murdered. It was the harshest mental challenge that he had ever encountered. A tension headache began to spread from somewhere between his eyes, to encompass his entire scalp. He scratched himself in a place that I shall not mention in polite company, and then waddled back over towards the river to see if he could spot whatever he’d assumed was planning to murder him.
Kobolds have the brains of prey. Just as surely as they have bodies designed for much the same purpose. Which is to say, their intellect is a wire, pulled incredibly taut, ready to strum at the faintest brush of danger, sending them scrambling for safety. In the place where a thinking creature might have had those parts of the brain reserved for art, poetry and culture, the kobold had a flight or fight instinct that would put the twitchiest vole to shame. It robs them of any ability to concentrate, as their attention is constantly divided between a million little noises that just might be threats. It robs them of the ability to think with any acuity, because thinking big thoughts takes a very long time when you are designed exclusively to function on a scale of split-seconds.
Back by the river, which he once again dutifully checked for the risky pike, Ig waded over to the far side to see what he could see. It was not quite the furthest that he had ever gone from the hole that he called home – that honor went to the patch of mushrooms that he and his siblings had discovered to the south and consumed in one long orgiastic afternoon of bizarre hallucinations, visions that for Ig involved an unknown creature that he would in later life learn was an aardvark – but it was still further than he really felt comfortable travelling.
Yet there was a siren call to the flash of color that he had seen in these otherwise drab woods. Grey and brown were the predominant colors here, even at the height of summer. Even Ig and his siblings tended towards grey and brown, from lichen and mud. To see something that was not only blue, but a rich royal blue, was enough to make the few hairs that grew on the back of his neck stand on end.
Excitement was not an emotion that was familiar to Ig.
He knew hungry. He knew itchy. He also knew afraid. He was very familiar with afraid, in fact. Some might say it was his primary state of being, with all others only occasionally passing through. But excitement, that was as alien as this flash of blue in the drab of the woods.
Overwhelmed with excitement, Ig did something that hither to this point he most likely would have considered to be outrageously bold. Something that neither he, nor any right-thinking kobold would ever attempt. He opened his mouth and squeaked.
It was a tiny sound. Light as the faintest flirtation of a grasshopper and twice as shrill. A sound that anywhere else would have been entirely unremarkable, and that here in the forest even, would have been unremarkable, but for the fact that it came from the mouth of a kobold.
Nobody answered him. Not even the blue thing in the tree.
It still hadn’t moved. Still hadn’t made a sound of its own. If it were some sort of ambush predator in a battle of wits with Ig, it clearly had him outclassed. If it were a plant that he was unfamiliar with then in all honesty it still probably had him outclassed in wits. Yet he could not resist it. Even though his whole body prickled with barely contained terror, he came closer and closer to the tree. To the broken off branch. To the thing hanging there from the broken off branch. Some sort of circle with a triangle protruding out the middle of it. A thing completely unfamiliar to his gaze. What you or I, dear reader, would know as a hat.
And what a hat it was. Such finery had never been seen in those desolate lands. It was a rich royal blue as deep as the fiercest of oceans or the calmest of night skies. The embroidery upon it was a masterwork of golden thread, outlining the positions of the stars to those with the knowledge to decipher its glyphs. In all of the world there has never and shall never be a more attractive and well put together hat than that very hat, that Ig found hanging from the branch of a tree.
He threw a pinecone at it.
The pinecone missed. Aiming may not have been Ig’s forte, but what he lacked in strength of arm or hand-eye coordination he more than made up for with being willing to do the same thankless task over and over again without pause. Nor was he missing pinecones. The forest floor was littered with them. Not to mention that a fair few of his missed throws rebounded back off the tree to land by his feet and be thrown all over again.
So passed a goodly portion of Ig’s morning. He had found something rare and beautiful in his little slice of the world, and he fully intended to pelt it with a pinecone if it was the last thing that he did.
Fear that it might be the last thing that he did, did of course creep into Ig as he stood there, tossing cones. His mind, ever in a turmoil, heard the echoes of his cones falling as approaching footsteps. Every creak of the trees was a bow being drawn back. Every twig snapping was a colossal carnivore connivingly creeping closer.
Yet still he persisted, not because he was brave, but because it hadn’t quite occurred to him yet that he might have been safer were he not standing out in the open throwing pinecones around.
Ig was not considered to be the most intelligent of kobolds by his kin. In the grand ranking of things, scaling down from the oldest mother-aunt who knew which mushrooms were safe to eat, vaguely, all the way down to the tiny mewling pink things that dropped out of them every so often and grew into kobolds, Ig’s intellect would probably be placed somewhere between the dry moss that they sometimes slept on and the mud it was used to protect them from. All of which is to say, he was not the brightest of boys. Even for a kobold.
Despite this failing, and a multitude more, there is something to be said for persistence. Though the task was clearly beyond him, though he lacked the skills and capabilities required to complete it, though every moment attempting to complete it put him into ever greater danger of being set upon by one of the myriad creatures of the forest that meant him harm, Ig persisted in throwing his pinecones until finally, surprising him as much as anyone else, one hit home.
The rim, where it was struck, bent a little out of shape. The silk lining, where it was hooked on the bark, suffered a minute tear to its stitching. But most importantly of all, the feeble throw of his tiny noodle arms managed to dislodge the hat from the branch on which it had been hanging for an indeterminate length of time.
Dashing forward, he snatched up his prize in his grubby little hands. Delighted and excited and staining the rather fine blue fabric with hands that had touched both mud and river recently. He spun around, holding the hat, as though to show off his prize to all who were gathered there, realized that he was alone, and let out a deflated sigh.
Then, finally he turned his full and undivided attention to the hat, for the whole half a second that he was actually capable of maintaining attention. He looked at it and saw that it was beautiful and wonderful and strange. Then he heard a bird in some distant bough drop a twig, and he was off scampering back towards the river and the hole beyond.
The hat dangled in Ig’s grip, flapping in the wind as he put on a brief turn of speed. It became bedraggled and sodden as he crossed through the river, forgetting it was in his hand, and paying far more attention to the possibility of pike. He was, in fact, almost all of the way back to his little den in the middle of absolutely nowhere when he seemed to realise that he was safe and sound and had something in his hand.
He wrung the water from the hat. Mangling it more than a little and rearranging the cosmos as described in its embroidery in catastrophic and apocalyptic ways before flapping it in front of himself a few times to try and straighten it out again. The hat would never be quite the same again after this treatment but holding grudges against creatures that aren’t technically sapient seems something of a waste of time.
Regardless, it seemed that some singular braincell in his head was sparking. Sending signals throughout his shrunken skull. The same joke that every living being with a head has ever made when confronted with something that looks like it might fit on that head. He lifted up the hat and placed it on his head.
THE DROP OF A HAT is out today from Podium Publishing! You can order your copy, including the audiobook, HERE