The Last Continent Page 20


it had to go, and since it also didn't know where this cart was going perhaps it would take it there. It waited a decent while after it had been put down, and then took in its surroundings. It had been stacked up by a lot of other boxes and suitcases, which was comforting. After five minutes spent being underground for millions of years the Luggage felt that it was due some quality time. And it didn't even resist when someone opened its lid and filled it up with shoes. Quite large shoes, the Luggage noticed, and many of them with interesting heels and inventive ways with silk and sequins. They were clearly ladies' shoes. That was good, the Luggage thought (or emoted, or reacted). Ladies tended to lead quieter lives. The purple cart rumbled off. Painted crudely on the back were the words: Petunia, The Desert Princess. Rincewind looked hard at the shears that the head shearer was waving. They looked sharp. 'You know what we do to people who go back on a bet round here?' said Daggy, the gang boss. 'Er . . . but I was drunk.'

'So were we. So what?' Rincewind looked out across the sheep pens. He knew what sheep were, of course, and had come into contact with them on many occasions, although normally in the company of mixed vegetables. He'd even had a toy stuffed lamb as a child. But there is something hugely unlovable about sheep, a kind of mad, eye-rolling brainless-ness smelling of damp wool and panic. Many religions extol the virtues of the meek, but Rincewind had never trusted them. The meek could turn very nasty at times. On the other hand . . . they were covered in wool, and the shears looked pretty keen. How hard could it be? His radar told him that trying and failing was probably a lot less of a crime than not trying at all. 'Can I have a trial run?' he said. A sheep was dragged out of the pens and flung down in front of him. Rincewind gave Daggy what he hoped was the smile of one craftsman to another, but smiling at Daggy was like throwing meringues against a cliff. 'Er, can I have a chair and a towel and two mirrors and a comb?' he said. Daggy's look of intense suspicion deepened. 'What's this? What d'you want all that for?'

'Got to do it properly, haven't I?'

Away out of sight at the back of the shearing shed, on the sun-bleached boards, the outline of a kangaroo began to form. And then, the white lines drifting across the wood like wisps of cloud across a clear sky, it began to change shape . . . Rincewind hadn't had a proper haircut in a long time, but he knew how it was done. 'So . . . have you had your holidays this year, then?' he said, clipping away. 'Mnaaarrrhh!'

'What about this weather, eh?' Rincewind said, desperately. 'Mnaaarrrhh!' The sheep wasn't even trying to struggle. It was an old one, with fewer teeth than feet, and even in the very limited depths of its extremely shallow mind it knew that this wasn't how shearing was supposed to go. Shearing was supposed to be a brief struggle followed by glorious cool freedom back in the paddock. It wasn't supposed to include searching questions about what it thought of this weather or enquiries as to whether it required something for the weekend, especially since the sheep had no concept of the connotations of the term 'weekend' or, if it came to that, of the word 'something' either. People weren't supposed to splash lavender water in its ear. The shearers watched in silence. There was quite a crowd of them, because they'd gone and fetched everyone else on the station. They knew in their souls that here was something to tell their grandchildren. Rincewind stood back, looked critically at his handiwork, and then showed the sheep the back of its head in the mirror, at which point the creature cracked, managed to get its feet under it and made a run for the paddock. 'Hey, wait till I take the curlers out!' Rincewind shouted after it. He became aware of the shearers watching him. Finally one of them said, in a stunned voice, That's sheep-shearing where yew come from, is it?'

'Er . . . what did you think?' said Rincewind. 'It's a bit slow, innit?'

'How fast was I supposed to go?'

'Weell, Daggy here once did nearly fifty in an hour. That's what you've got to beat, see? None of that fancy rubbish. Just short back, front, top and sides.'

'Mind yew,' said one of the shearers, wistfully, 'that was a beautiful lookin' sheep.'

There was an outbreak of bleating from the sheep corrals. 'Ready to give it a real go, Rinso?' said Daggy. 'Ye gawds, what's that?' said one of his mates. The fence shattered. A ram stood in the gap, shaking its head to dislodge bits of post from its horns. Steam rose from its nostrils. Most of the things Rincewind had associated with sheep, apart from the gravy and mint sauce, had to do with . . . sheepishness. But this was a ram, and the word association was suddenly . . . rampage. It pawed the ground. It was a lot bigger than the average sheep. In fact, it seemed to fill Rincewind's entire future. 'That's not one of mine!' said the flock's owner. Daggy placed his shears in Rincewind's other hand and patted him on the back. 'This one's yours, mate,' he said, and backed away. 'You're here to show us how it's done, eh, mate?' Rincewind looked down at his feet. They weren't moving. They remained firmly fixed to the ground. The ram advanced, snorting and looking Rincewind in the bloodshot eye. 'Okay,' it whispered, when it was very close. 'You just make with the shears and the sheep'll do the rest. No worries.'

'Is that you?' said Rincewind, glancing at the distant ring of watchers. 'Hah, good one. Ready? They'll do what I do. They're like sheep, okay?' The shearers watched as wool fell like rain. That's somethin' you don't often see,' said one of them. Them standin' on their heads like that . . .' The cartwheels is good,' said another shearer, lighting his pipe. 'I mean, for sheep.' Rincewind just hung on to the shears. They had a life of their own. The sheep flung themselves against the clippers as if in a real hurry to get into something more comfortable. Fleeces curled around his ankles, then around his knees, rose above his waist . . . and then the shears were slicing the air, and sizzling as they cooled down. Several dozen dazed sheep were watching him very suspiciously. So were the sheep-shearers. 'Er . . . have we started the competition yet?' he said. 'You just sheared thirty sheep in two minutes!' roared Daggy.

'Is that good?'

'Good? No one takes two minutes for thirty sheep.'

'Well, I'm sorry, but I can't go any faster.' The shearers went into a huddle. Rincewind looked around for the ram, but it didn't seem to be there any more. Finally, something seemed to have been settled. The shearers approached him in the cautious, oblique way of men trying to hang back and walk forward at the same time. Daggy stepped forward, but only comparatively; in fact, his mates had all, without discussion, taken one step backwards in the choreography of caution. 'G'day!' he said nervously. Rincewind gave him a friendly wave, and it was only halfway through when he remembered that he was still holding the shears. Daggy hadn't forgotten about them. 'Er . . . we ain't got five hundred squids till we get paid—' Rincewind wasn't certain how to deal with this. 'No worries,' he said. This covered most things. '. . . so if yew're gonna be around . . .'

'I just want to get to Bugarup as soon as possible,' said Rincewind. Daggy kept smiling but turned around and went into another huddle with the rest of the shearers. Then he turned back. '. . . maybe we could sell a few things . . .'

'I'm not bothered about the money, actually,' said Rincewind loudly. 'Just point me in the direction of Bugarup. No worries.'

'Yew don't want the money?'

'No worries.' There was another huddle. Rincewind heard hissed comments of 'Get him outta here right now.' Daggy turned back. 'I got a horse you can have,' he said. 'It's worth a squid or two.'

'No worries.'

'And then you'll be able to ride away . . .?'

'She'll be right. No worries.' It was an amazing phrase. It was practically magical all by itself. It just . . . made things better. A shark's got your leg? No worries. You've been stung by a jellyfish? No worries! You're dead? She'll be right! No worries! Oddly enough, it seemed to work. 'No worries,' he said again. 'Got to be worth a squid or two, that horse,' Daggy said again. 'Practically a bloody racehorse.' There was some sniggering from the crowd. 'No worries?' said Rincewind. Daggy looked for a moment as if he was entertaining the suggestion that maybe the horse was worth more than five hundred squid, but Rincewind was still dreamily holding on to the shears and he thought better of it. 'Get you to Bugarup in no time, that horse,' he said. 'No worries.' A couple of minutes later it was obvious even to Rincewind's inexperienced eye that while you could race this horse, it wouldn't be sensible to race it against other horses. At least, ones that were alive. It was brown, stubby, mostly a thatch of mane, with hooves the size of soup bowls, and it had the shortest legs Rincewind had ever seen on anything with a saddle. The only way you could fall off would be to dig a hole in the ground first. It looked ideal. It was Rincewind's kind of horse. 'No worries,' he said. 'Actually . . . one small worry.' He dropped the shears. The shearers took a step back. Rincewind went over to the corral and looked down at the ground, which was churned from the hoofprints of the sheep. Then he looked at the back of the shearing shed. For a moment he was sure there was the outline of a kangaroo . . . The shearers approached him cautiously as he banged on the sun-bleached planks, shouting, 'I know you're in there!' . 'Er, that's what we call wood,' said Daggy. 'Woo-od,' he added, for the hard-of-thinking. 'Made into a wa-all.'

'Did you see a kangaroo walk into this wall?' Rincewind demanded. Daggy's wide brow furrowed a little. He took off his hat and wiped his head with his arm. He looked at the disappearing horse, and then at the sheds, and then at the other men. Several times he started to speak, shut his mouth before he could get the first word out, and glared around him again.

'Yew all know I've had it for bloody ages, right?' he demanded. '

's right.'

'Ages.'

'Won it off'f a bloke.'

'Right. Yeah. Right. You must've done.' Mrs Whitlow sat on a rock, combing her hair. A bush had sprouted several twigs with rows of blunt, closely set thorns just when she needed them. Large, pink and very clean, she relaxed by the water like an amplified siren. Birds sang in the trees. Sparkling beetles hummed to and fro across the water. If the Senior Wrangler had been present someone could have scraped him up and carried him away in a bucket. Mrs Whitlow did not feel in any danger. The wizards were around, after all. She was mildly worried that the maids would be getting lazy since she wasn't there, but she could look forward to making their lives a living hell when she got back. The possibility of not getting back never entered her head. A lot of things never entered Mrs Whitlow's head. She'd decided a long time ago that the world was a lot nicer that way. She had a very straightforward view of foreign parts, or at least those more distant than her sister's house in Quirm where she spent a week's holiday every year. They were inhabited by people who were more to be pitied than blamed because, really, they were like children.[15] And they acted like savages.[16] On the other hand, the scenery was nice and the weather was warm and nothing smelled very bad. She was definitely feeling the benefit, as she'd put it. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mrs Whitlow had left her corsets off. The thing that the Senior Wrangler insisted on calling the 'melon boat' was, even the Dean admitted, very impressive. There was a big space below deck, dark and veined and lined with curved black boards, very like giant sunflower seeds. 'Boat seeds,' said the Archchancellor. 'Probably make good ballast. Senior Wrangler, don't eat the wall, please.'

'I thought perhaps we could do with more cabin space,' said the Senior Wrangler. 'Cabins possibly, staterooms no,' said Ridcully, heaving himself back on to the deck. 'Avast shipmate!' shouted the Dean, throwing a bunch of bananas on to the boat and climbing up behind them. 'Quite so. How do we sail this vegetable, Dean?'

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