Cornelius slowed his six-legged stride as he entered the cavern. The soft moss lining the floor informed him that he had arrived. The praying mantis twisted his triangular head as he tried to find Clyde in the darkness. ‘Great Leader?’ he called out.
A shape moved at the far end. ‘Goleuadau!’ Clyde ordered. The glow-worms lining the roof responded. Cold blue light shimmered over the snail shark’s shell and glinted on his eyespots. He slithered from the raised platform and flowed up to the mantis.
Although they were nearly the same size, Cornelius still felt his antennae twist nervously. ‘Great Leader, sorry to disturb you and all. Did you eat well?’
The snail’s belly split open, revealing jaws lined with jagged teeth.
‘Glad to hear it.’ If Clyde had a full stomach, he was less likely to snack on a thin insect. ‘Great Leader, some of the trainee soldiers have begged an audience. You know what they’re like, these younguns, as curious as a duck in a hen house. And there’s some lemmings too.’
‘Lemmings,’ Clyde repeated thoughtfully, a small trail of drool pooling at his foot.
Cornelius took a cautious step backwards. ‘These lemmings help to train your army, Great Leader. Please don’t eat them.’
Flashes of red and orange coloured the snail’s grey body. But aloud he said, ‘Okay.’
‘Will you be seeing them?’
The mantis left the cave, and gave word to one of the guards. A few minutes later, a half dozen snail pups and an equal number of lemmings crowded into the corridor. As they swirled around Cornelius’ legs, he whispered, ‘Now, y’all remember that the Great Leader’s busier than a one legged cat in a sandbox. Three questions only, right?’
Clyde had returned to his raised platform when Cornelius guided the visitors into the cavern. Peaceful blues and greens pulsed through the snail, and Cornelius breathed more easily. ‘Your citizens, Great Leader. Who has the first question?’
A small snail shark, only six inches high, slid forwards. Colours swirled through her tentacles. Cornelius interpreted her question for the lemmings.
‘She’s asked, “How does the Great Leader spend his day?”’
Clyde reared up, and in a tenor voice sang, ‘“Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve; Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”’
‘Yes, Great Leader, there’s much work to be done all day long,’
Cornelius said quickly. ‘But perhaps you can tell the younguns what you did yesterday.’
Various colours surged through the Clyde’s body. Cornelius explained to the lemmings, ‘He started his morning with eating a couple of birds. Then he met with the General to discuss the army. In the afternoon, he visited the relics of the Eternal Leaders.’
‘Eternal Leaders,’ the lemmings repeated, their voices low and reverential.
‘Later that evening, he met with the guardians of the breeding pens. Egg production is up, but still no snail has hatched who could be a mate for the Great Leader. Only snails with spirals on the right.’
Browns and greys traced down the bodies of all the snails. The lemmings’ whiskers twitched in sympathy. ‘Lonely?’ asked one white furred rodent.
Clyde’s body shimmered with blue and purple as he sang, ‘“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”’
Cornelius clicked his forelegs. Fortunately, none of the others present seemed to realise who this ‘Lord’ was. ‘The Great Leader is comforted by the love of his citizens,’ he said quickly. ‘Last question?’
A lemming rose onto his hind legs. ‘Favourite person?’
‘“Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?”’ Clyde paused, then added, ‘Penny.’ His body streamed colours so quickly that, despite the many months he had spent with the snail sharks, the praying mantis struggled to keep up.
‘He says that Penny White is his best friend,’ Cornelius said. ‘When the Great Leader’s mother, the Noble Leader, was killed in circumstances which we still don’t understand, Penny took him in. She gave him shelter, and a hunting ground, and has always defended him.’
‘Human?’ one of the snails managed to say.
‘Yes,’ Cornelius answered. ‘But from what I’ve seen, she’s as fine as a frog’s hair split four ways. Okay, questions done. Bow to the Eternal Leaders.’
Snails and lemmings lined up, then bent low to honour the images of flying snails which had been carved into the rock walls. As the group filed out, the mantis glanced back at the Great Leader. Clyde’s body was still rainbowed with a final message which Cornelius had not tried to translate.
There was no point. No one in the nation ruled by the Great Leader would understand the phrase, ‘I love her.’
Clyde is the creation of Chrys Cymri and features in all the Penny White Books to date. We meet him in The Temptation of Dragons, which is the first book in the series. He is the special star of the latest book in the series The Vengeance of Snails (Penny White Book 4).