The Last Continent Page 21


'Oh, Ponder Stibbons knows all about that sort of thing.'

'And where is he?'

'Didn't he go off to fetch some bananas?' They looked down at the beach, where the Bursar was stockpiling seaweed. 'He did seem a bit . . . upset,' said Ridcully. 'Can't imagine why.' Ridcully glanced up at the central mountain, glowing in the afternoon sun. 'I suppose he wouldn't have done anything stupid, would he?' he said. 'Archchancellor, Ponder Stibbons is a fully trained wizard!' said the Dean. 'Thank you for that very concise and definite answer, Dean,' said Ridcully. He leaned down into the cabin. 'Senior Wrangler! We're going to look for Stibbons. And we ought to go and fetch Mrs Whitlow, too.' There was a shriek from below. 'Mrs Whitlow! How could we have forgotten her!'

'In your case, only by having a cold bath, Senior Wrangler.' As horses went, this one went slowly. It moved in a stolid, I-can-do-this-all-day manner that clearly said the only way you get me to go faster will be to push me off a cliff. It had a curious gait, somewhere faster than a trot but slower than a canter. The effect was a jolting slightly out of synchronization with the moment of inertia in any known human organ, causing everything inside Rincewind to bounce off everything else. Also, if he forgot for a second and lowered his legs, Snowy went on without him, and this meant that he had to run ahead and stand there like a croquet hoop until he caught him up. But Snowy didn't bite, buck, roll over or gallop insanely away, which were the traits Rincewind had hitherto associated with horses. When Rincewind stopped for the night the horse wandered off a little way and ate a bush covered with leaves the thickness, smell and apparent edibility of linoleum.

He camped beside what he had heard called a 'billybong', which was just an expanse of churned earth with a tiny puddle of water welling up in the middle. Little green and blue birds were clustered around it, cheeping happily in the late afternoon light. They scattered when Rincewind lay down to drink, and scolded him from the trees. When he sat up, one of them landed on his finger. 'Who's a pretty boy, then?' said Rincewind. The noise stopped. Up on the branches the birds looked at one another. There wasn't much room in their heads for a new idea, but one had just turned up. The sun dropped towards the horizon. Rince-wind poked very cautiously inside a hollow log and found a ham sandwich and a plate of cocktail sausages. Up in the trees the budgerigars were in a huddle. One of them said, very quietly, 'Wh . . .?' Rincewind lay back. Even the flies were merely annoying. Things began to sizzle in the bushes. Snowy went and drank from the tiny pool with a noise like an inefficient suction pump trying to deal with an unlucky turtle. It was, nevertheless, very peaceful. Rincewind sat bolt upright. He knew what was about to happen when things were peaceful. Up in the darkening branches a bird muttered, '. . . pre'y b'y . . .?' He relaxed, but only a little. '. . . 'sa prit' b'y . . .?' Suddenly the birds stopped. A branch creaked. The drop-bear . . . dropped. It was a close relative of the koala, although this doesn't mean very much. After all, the closest relative of the common elephant is about the size and shape of a rabbit. The drop- bear's most notable feature was its posterior, thick and heavily-padded to provide the maximum shock to the victim with the minimum shock to the bear. The initial blow rendered the prey unconscious, and then the bears could gather round to feed. It was a magnificent method of killing, since in other respects the bears were not very well built to be serious predators, and it was therefore particularly unfortunate for this bear that it chose, on this night, to drop on a man who might well have had 'Victim' written all over him but also had 'Wizzard' written on his hat, and that this hat, most significantly, came to a point.

Rincewind lumbered to his feet and ran into a few trees while he tried, with both hands on the brim, to lift his hat off his head. He managed it at last, stared in horror at the bear and its peculiarly confused expression, and shook it off and into the bushes. There were thumps around him as more bears, disoriented by this turn of events, hit the ground and bounced wildly. In the trees the budgerigars woke up and, the simple message by now having had time to work its way into their brain cells, shrieked, 'Who's a pri'y boy, den?' A madly tumbling bear whirled past Rincewind's face. Rincewind turned and ran towards Snowy, landing astride the horse's back, or where its back would have been had it been taller. Snowy obediently broke into his arrhythmical trot and headed into the darkness. Rincewind looked down, swore and ran after his horse. He held on tight as Snowy ran on like some small engine, leaving the bouncing bears behind, and didn't slow down until he was well away along the track and among bushes that were shorter than he was. Then he slid off. What a bloody country! There was a flurry of wings in the night and suddenly the bush was full of little birds. 'Wh'sa pri' boyden?' Rincewind waved his hat at them and screamed a little, just to relieve his feelings. It didn't work. The budgerigars thought this was some sort of entertainment. 'Bug'roff!' they twittered. Rincewind gave up, stamped on the ground a few times, and tried to sleep. When he awoke, it was to a sound very much like a donkey being sawn in half. It was a kind of rhythmic scream of pain, anguished and forlorn, setting the teeth of the world on edge. Rincewind raised his head cautiously over the scrub. A windmill was spinning in the breeze, turning this way and that as stray gusts batted its tail fin. Rincewind was seeing more of these, dotted across the landscape, and thought: If all the water's underground, that's a good idea . . . There was a mob of sheep hanging around the base of this one. They didn't back off, but watched him carefully as he approached. He saw why. The trough below the pump was empty. The fan was spinning, grinding out its mournful squeak, but no water was coming out of the pipe. The thirsty sheep looked up at him.

'Er . . . don't look at me,' he mumbled. I'm a wizard. We're not supposed to be good at machinery.' No, but we are supposed to be good at magic, said an accusing voice in his head. 'Maybe I can see if something's come loose, though. Or something,' he muttered. Impelled by the vaguely accusing woolly stares, he clambered up the rickety tower and tried to look efficient. There didn't seem to be anything wrong, except that the metallic groaning was getting louder. 'Can't see any—' Something that had finally been tortured beyond endurance broke, somewhere down in the tower. It shook, and the windmill spun free, dragging a broken rod which smashed heavily on the windmill's casing with every revolution. Rincewind half fell, half slid back down to the ground. 'Seems to be a bit of a technical fault,' he mumbled. A lump of cast iron smashed into the sand by his feet. 'Probably needs to be seen to by a qualified artificer. Probably invalidates the warranty if I mess around—' A cracking noise from overhead made him dive for cover, which in this case was a rather surprised sheep. When the racket had died away the windmill's fan was bowling over through the scrub. As for the rest of it, if there had ever been any user-serviceable parts inside they very clearly weren't in there any more. Rincewind took off his hat to mop his brow, but he wasn't quick enough. A pink tongue rasped across his forehead like damp sandpaper. 'Ow! Good grief! You lot really are thirsty, aren't you . . .?' He pulled the hat back on, right down to his ears just to be on the safe side. 1 could do with a drink myself, to tell the truth . . .' He managed, after pushing a few sheep aside, to find a piece of broken windmill. Wading with some difficulty through the press of silent bodies, he made his way to an area that was a little lower than the surrounding scrub, and contained a couple of trees whose leaves looked slightly fresher than the rest. 'Ow! G'd gr'f!' chattered the birds around him. Two or three feet should do it, he thought as he shovelled the red soil aside. Amazing, really, all this water underground when it never rained at all. The whole place must be floating on water. At three feet down the soil was barely damp. He sighed, and kept going.

He was more than chest deep before a trickle oozed out between his toes. The sheep fought for the damp soil as he threw it up to the surface. As he watched, the puddle sank into the ground. 'Hey, comeback!'

'H'y, c'm bik!' screamed the birds in the bushes. 'Shut up!'

'Sh'tupl Wh'spr'boyden?' He flailed at the ground with his makeshift shovel in an effort to catch up, and overtook the descending water after another few inches. He splashed on until he was knee deep, dragged his hat through the muddy liquid, pulled himself out of the hole and ran, water dribbling over his feet, until he could tip it into the trough. The sheep clustered around it, struggling silently to get at the film of moisture. Rincewind got two more hatfuls before the water sank out of sight. He wrenched the ladder off the stricken windmill, threw it down the hole and jumped in after it. Damp soil fountained out as he dug, and each dripping lump attracted a mass of flies and small birds as soon as it hit the ground. He managed another dozen or so hatfuls before the hole was deeper than the ladder. By now some cattle had lumbered up to the trough as well, and it was impossible to see the water for heads. The sound was that of a straw investigating the suds of the biggest milkshake in the world. Rincewind took a final look down the hole, and as he did so the last drop of water winked out of sight. 'Weird country,' he muttered. He wandered over to where Snowy was standing patiently in the sparse shade of a bush. 'You're not thirsty?' he said. Snowy snorted and shook his mane. 'Oh, well. Maybe you've got a bit of camel in you. You certainly can't be all horse, I know that.' Snowy moved aimlessly sideways and trod on Rincewind's foot. By noon the track crossed another one, which was much wider. Hoofprints and wheel ruts suggested that it got a lot of traffic. Rincewind brightened up, and followed it through thickening trees, glad of the shade.

He passed another groaning windmill surrounded by a cluster of patiently waiting cattle. There were more bushes and the land was rising into ancient, crumbling hills of orange rock. At least it gets the wind up here, he thought. Ye gods, is a drop of rain too much to ask? You can't never have any rain. Everywhere gets rained on sometimes. It has to drop out of the sky in order to get underground in the first place, doesn't it? He stopped when he heard the sound of many hoofbeats on the track behind him. A mob of riderless horses appeared round the bend at full gallop. As they swept past Rincewind he saw one horse out in front of the others, built on the sleekest lines he'd ever seen, a horse that moved as though it had a special arrangement with gravity. The pack divided and flowed around Rincewind as if he were a rock in a stream. Then they were just a disappearing noise in a cloud of red dust. Snowy's nostrils flared, and the jolting increased as he speeded up. 'Oh, yes?' said Rincewind. 'Not a chance, mate. You can't play with the big boys. No worries.' The cloud of dust had barely settled before there were more hoofbeats and a bunch of horsemen came around the curve. They galloped past without taking any notice of Rincewind, but a rider at the rear slowed down. 'You seen a mob of horses go by, mate?'

'Yes, mate. No worries, no worries, no worries.'

'A big brown colt leadin'

'em?'

'Yes, mate. No worries, no worries.'

'Old Remorse says he'll give a hundred squids to the man who catches him! No chance of that, it's canyon country ahead!'

'No worries?'

'What's that you're riding, an ironing board?'

'Er, excuse me,' Rincewind began, as the man set off in pursuit, 'but is this the right road to Bugar—?' The dust swirled across the road. 'What happened to the well known Ecksian reputation for good-hearted friendliness, eh?' shouted Rincewind to empty air. He heard shouts and the cracking of whips from the trees on the high slopes as he wound into the hills. At one point the wild horses burst out on to the track again, not even noticing him in their flight, and this time Snowy ambled off the track and followed the trail of broken bushes.

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