The Last Continent Page 13

'Who, me? No! Some of my best friends would be dwarfs. If I had any friends, I mean. Er. I'm Rincewind.'

'Yeah? Well, I'm short-tempered,' said the dwarf. 'Most people call me Mad.'

'Just “Mad”? That's an . . . unusual name.'

'It ain't a name.'

Rincewind stared. There was no doubt that his captor was a dwarf. He didn't have the traditional beard or iron helmet, but there were other little ways that you could tell. There was the chin that you could break coconuts on, the fixed expression of ferocity, and the certain bullet-headedness that meant its owner could go through walls face first. And, of course, if all else failed, the fact that the top of it was about level with Rincewind's stomach was a clue. Mad wore a leather suit but, like the cart, it had metal riveted on to it wherever possible. Where there weren't rivets there was weaponry. The word 'friend' jumped into the forefront of Rincewind's brain. There are many reasons for being friends with someone. The fact that he's pointing a deadly weapon at you is among the top four. 'Good description,' said Rincewind. 'Easy to remember.' The dwarf cocked his head on one side and listened. 'Blast, they're catching me up.' He looked back up at Rincewind and said, 'Can you fire a crossbow?' in a way that indicated that answering 'no' was a good way to contract immediate sinus trouble. 'Absolutely,' said Rincewind. 'Get on the cart, then. Y'know, I've been travellin' this road for years and this is the first time anyone's ever dared to hitch a lift?'

'Amazing,' said Rincewind. There was not much room under the hatch, and most of it was taken up by more weapons. Mad pushed Rincewind aside, grasped the reins, peered into the periscope stovepipe and urged the horses into motion. Bushes scraped against the wheels and the horses dragged back on to the track and began to get up speed. 'Beaut, aren't they?' said Mad. 'They can outrun anything, even with the armour.'

'This is certainly a very . . . original cart,' said Rincewind. 'Got a few modifications of my own,' said Mad. He grinned evilly. 'You a wizard, mister?'

'Broadly speaking, yes.'

'Any good?' Mad was loading another crossbow. Rincewind hesitated. 'No,' he said. 'Lucky for you,' said Mad. 'I'd have killed you if you were. Can't stand wizards. Bunch of wowsers, right?' He grasped the handles of the bent stovepipe and swivelled it around.

'Here they come,' he muttered. Rincewind peered over the top of Mad's head. There was a piece of mirror in the bend of the pipe. It showed the road behind, and half a dozen dots under another cloud of red dust. 'Road gang,' said Mad. 'After my cargo. Steal anything, they will. All bastards are bastards, but some bastards is bastards.' He pulled a handful of nosebags from under the seat. 'Right, you get up on top with a couple of crossbows, and I'll fix the supercharger.'

'What? You want me to start shooting at people?'

'You want me to start shooting at people?' said Mad, pushing him up the ladder. Rincewind crawled out on to the top of the cart. It was swaying and bouncing. Red dust choked him and the wind tried to blow his robe over his head. He hated weapons, and not just because they'd so often been aimed at him. You got into more trouble if you had a weapon. People shot you instantly if they thought you were going to shoot them. But if you were unarmed, they often stopped to talk. Admittedly, they tended to say things like, 'You'll never guess what we're going to do to you, pal,' but that took time. And Rincewind could do a lot with a few seconds. He could use them to live longer in. The dots in the distance were other carts, designed for speed rather than cargo. Some had four wheels, some had two. One had . . . just one, a huge one between narrow shafts, with a tiny saddle on top. The rider looked as though he'd bought his clothes in the scrapmetal yards of three continents and, where they wouldn't fit, had strapped on a chicken. But not one as big as the chicken pulling his wheel. It was bigger than Rincewind and most of what wasn't leg was neck. It was covering the ground as fast as a horse. 'What the hell's that?' he yelled. 'Emu!' shouted Mad, who was now hanging among the harnesses. 'Try and pick it off, they're a good feed!' The cart jolted. Rincewind's hat whirled away into the dust. 'Now I've lost my hat!'

'Good! Bloody awful hat!' An arrow twanged off a metal plate by Rincewind's foot. 'And they're shooting at me!' A cart rattled out of the dust. The man beside the driver whirled something around his head. A grapnel bit into the woodwork by Rincewind's other foot and ripped off a metal plate. 'And they're—' he began.

'You've got a bow, right?' yelled Mad, who was balancing on the back of one of the horses. 'And find something to hold onta, they're gonna go at any minute—' The cart had been moving at the gallop, but now it suddenly shot forward and almost jolted Rincewind right off. Smoke poured out of the axles. The landscape blurred. 'What the hell is that?'

'Supercharger!' shouted Mad, pulling himself on to the cart inches from the frantically pounding hooves. 'Secret recipe! Now hold 'em off, right, 'cos someone's gotta steer!' The emu emerged from the dust cloud with a few of the faster carts rattling behind it. An arrow buried itself in the cart right between Rincewind's legs. He flung himself flat on the swaying roof, held out the crossbow, shut his eyes and fired. In accordance with ancient narrative practice, the shot ricocheted off someone's helmet and brought down an innocent bird some distance away, whose only role was to expire with a suitably humorous squawk. The man driving the emu drew alongside. From under a familiar hat with 'Wizzard' dimly visible in the grime he gave Rincewind a grin. Every tooth had been sharpened to a point, and the front six had 'Mother' engraved on them. 'G'day!' he shouted cheerfully. 'Hand over your cargo and I promise you that you won't be killed all in one go.' That's my hat! Give me back my hat!'

'You're a wizard, are you?' The man stood up on the saddle, balancing easily as the wheel bounced over the sand. He waved his hands over his head. 'Look at me, mates! I'm a bloody wizard! Magic, magic, magic!' A very heavy arrow, trailing a rope, smashed into the back of the cart and stuck fast. There was a cheer from the riders. 'You give me back my hat or there'll be trouble!'

'Oh, there's gonna be trouble anyway,' said the rider, aiming his crossbow. Tell you what, why not turn me into somethin' bad? Oh, I'm all afrai—' His face went green. He pitched backwards. The crossbow bolt hit the driver of the cart beside him, which veered wildly into the path of another, which swerved and crashed into a camel. That meant the carts behind were suddenly faced with a pile-up which, together with the absence of brakes on any vehicle, immediately got bigger. Part of it was kicking people as well. Rincewind, hands over his head, watched until the last wheel had rolled away, and then walked unsteadily along the swaying cart to where Mad was leaning on the reins.

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'Er, I think you can slow down now, Mr Mad,' he ventured. 'Yeah? Killed 'em all, didja?'

'Er . . . not all of them. Some of them just ran away.'

'You kiddin' me?' The dwarf looked round. 'Stone me, you ain't! Here, pull that lever as hard as you can!' He waved at a long metal rod beside Rincewind, who tugged it obediently. Metal screamed as the brakes locked against the wheels. 'Why're they going so fast?'

'It's a mixture of oats and lizard glands!' shouted Mad, against the red-hot squealing. 'Gives 'em a big jolt!' The cart had to circle for a few minutes until the adrenalin wore off, and then they went back along the track to look at the wreckage. Mad swore again. 'What happened!'

'He shouldn't've stolen my hat,' Rincewind mumbled. The dwarf jumped down and kicked a broken cartwheel. 'You did this to people because they stole your hat? What do you do if they spit in your eye, blow up the country?'

' 's my hat,' said Rincewind sullenly. He wasn't at all sure what had happened. He wasn't any good at magic, that he knew. The only curses of his that stood a chance of working were on the lines of 'May you get rained on at some time in your life,' and 'May you lose some small item despite the fact that you put it there only a moment ago.' Going pale green . . . he looked down . . . oh, yes, and slightly yellow in blotches, now . . . was not the usual effect. Mad wandered purposefully among the wreckage. He picked up a few weapons and tossed them aside. 'Want the camel?' he said. The creature was standing a little way off, eyeing him suspiciously. It looked quite unscathed, having been the cause of considerable scathe in other people. 'I'd really rather stick my foot in a bacon slicer,' said Rincewind. 'Sure? Well, hitch it onta the cart, it'll fetch a good price in Dijabringabeeralong,' said Mad. He looked at a home-made repeating crossbow, grunted and tossed it aside. Then he looked at another cart and his face brightened. 'Ah! Now we're cooking with charcoal!' he said. 'It's our lucky day, mate!'

'Oh. A bag of hay,' said Rincewind. 'Give us a hand to get it on the wagon, willya?' said Mad, unbolting the rear of his own cart. 'What's so special about hay?' The cart opened. It was full of hay. 'Life or death out here, mate. There's people'd slit yew from here to breakfast for a bale of hay. Man without hay is a man without a horse, and out here a man without a horse is a corpse.'

'Sorry? I went through all that for a load of hay?' Mad waggled his eyebrows conspiratorially. 'And two sacks of oats in the secret compartment, mate.' He slapped Rincewind on the back. 'An' to think I thought yew was some back-stabbin' drongo I ort to toss over the rail! Turns out you're as mad as me!' There are times when it does not pay to declare one's sanity, and Rincewind realized that he'd be mad to do so now. Anyway, he could talk to kangaroos and find cheese and chutney rolls in the desert. There were times when you had to look wobbly facts in the face. 'Mental as anything,' he said, with what he hoped was disarming modesty. 'Good bloke! Let's load up their weapons and grub and get goin'!'

'What do we want their weapons for?'

'Fetch a good price.'

'And what about the bodies?'

'Nah, worthless.' While Mad was nailing salvaged bits of scrap metal to his cart, Rincewind sidled over to the green and yellow corpse . . . and, oh yes, large black areas now . . . and, using a stick, levered his hat from its head. A small eight-legged ball of angry black fur sprang out and locked its fangs on to the stick, which began to smoulder. He put it down very carefully, grabbed the hat and ran. Ponder sighed. 'I wasn't questioning your authority, Arch-chancellor,' he said. 'I just feel that if a huge monster evolves into a chicken right in front of you, the considered response should not be to eat the chicken.' The Archchancellor licked his fingers. 'What would you have done, then?' he said.

'Well . . . studied it,' said Ponder. 'So did we. Post-mortem examination,' said the Dean. 'Minutely,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies, happily. He belched. 'Pardon me, Mrs Whitlow. Will you have a little more br . . .' He caught Ridcully's steely glance, and went on, '. . . front part of the chicken, Mrs Whitlow?'

'And we've discovered that it'll no longer be any menace to visiting wizards,' said Ridcully. 'It's just that I think proper research should involve more than having a look to see if you can find a sage-and-onion bush,' said Ponder. 'You saw how quickly it changed, didn't you?'

'Well?' said the Dean. That can't be natural.'

'You're the one who says things naturally change into other things, Mister Stibbons.'

'But not that fast!'

'Have you ever seen any of this evolution happening?'

'Well, of course not, no one has ever—'

'There you are, then,' said Ridcully, in a closing-the-argument voice. That might be the normal speed. As I said, it makes perfect sense. There's no point in turning into a bird a bit at a time, is there? A feather here, a beak there . . . You'd see some damn stupid creatures wandering around, eh?' The other wizards laughed. 'Our monster probably simply thought, Oh, there's too many of them, perhaps I'd better turn into something they'd like.'

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