The Last Continent Page 22


Rincewind had learned that hauling on the reins only had the effect of making his arms ache. The only way to stop the little horse when he didn't want to be stopped was probably to get off, run ahead, and dig a trench in front of him. Once again the riders came up behind Rincewind and thudded past, foam streaming from the horses' mouths. 'Excuse me. Am I on the right road for—?' And they were gone. He caught up with them ten minutes later in a thicket of mountain ash, milling around uncertainly while their leader shouted at them. 'I say, can anyone tell me—' he ventured. Then he saw why they had stopped. They'd run out of forwards. The ground fell away into a canyon, a few patches of grass and a handful of bushes clinging to the very nearly sheer drop. Snowy's nostrils flared and, without even pausing, he continued down the slope. He should have skidded, Rincewind saw. In fact he should have dropped. The slope was almost vertical. Even mountain goats would only try it roped together. Stones bounced around him and a few of the larger ones managed to hit him on the back of the neck, but Snowy trotted downwards at the same deceptive speed that he used on the flat. Rincewind settled for hanging on and screaming. Halfway down, he saw the wild herd gallop along the canyon, skid around a rock and disappear between the cliffs. Snowy reached the bottom in a shower of pebbles and paused for a moment. Rincewind risked opening an eye. The little horse's nostrils flared again as it looked down the narrow canyon. It stamped a hoof uncertainly. Then it looked at the vertiginous far wall, only a few metres away. 'Oh, no,' moaned Rincewind. 'Please, no . . .' He tried to untangle his legs but they had met right under the horse's stomach and twisted their ankles together. He must be able to do something to gravity, he told himself, as Snowy trotted up the cliff as though it wasn't a wall but merely a sort of vertical floor. The corks on his hat brim banged against his nose. And ahead . . . above . . . was an overhang . . . 'No, please, no, please don't . . .' He shut his eyes. He felt Snowy draw to a halt. and breathed a sigh of relief. He risked a look down, and the huge hooves were indeed standing on solid, flat rock.

There were no corks hanging in front of Rincewind's hat. In dread and slowly mounting terror, he turned his eyes to what they'd always thought of as upwards. There was solid rock above him, as well. Only it was a long way up, or down. And the corks were all hanging upwards, or downwards. Snowy was standing on the underside of the overhang, apparently enjoying the view. He flared his nostrils again, and shook his mane. He'll fall off, Rincewind thought. Any minute now he'll realize he's upside down and he'll fall off and from this height a horse'll splat. On top of me. Snowy appeared to reach a decision, and set off again, around the curve of the overhang. The corks swung back and hit Rincewind in the face but, hey, all the trees had the green bits pointing up, except that they were the grey bits. Rincewind looked across the chasm at the horsemen. 'G'day!' he said, waving his hat in the air as Snowy set off again. 'I think I'm about to have a technicolour snake!' he added, and threw up. '

'ere, mistah?' someone shouted back. 'Yes?'

'That was a chunder!'

'Right! No worries!' It turned out that this piece of land was only a narrow spur between canyons. Another sheer drop loomed up, or down. But to Rincewind's relief the horse turned aside at the brink and trotted along the edge. 'Oh, no, please . . .' A tree had fallen down and bridged the gulf. It was very narrow, but Snowy wheeled on to it without slowing. Both ends of the tree drummed up and down on the lip of the cliff. Pebbles began to fall away. Snowy bounced across the gap like a small ball and stepped off on the far side just before the treetrunk teetered and dropped on to the rocks. 'Please, no . . .' There wasn't a cliff here, just a long slope of loose rocks. Snowy landed among them, and flared his nostrils as the entire slope of scree began to move.

Rincewind saw the herd gallop past in the narrow canyon bottom, far below. Large rocks bounded alongside him as the horse continued down in his own personal landslide. One or two jumped and bounced ahead, smashing on to the canyon floor just behind the last of the herd. Numb with fear and the shaking, Rincewind looked further along the canyon. It was blind. The end was another cliff . . . Stone piled into stone, building a rough wall across the canyon floor. As the last boulder slammed into place Snowy landed on top of it, almost daintily. He looked down at the penned herd, milling in confusion, and flared his nostrils. Rincewind was pretty sure horses couldn't snigger, but this one radiated an air of sniggerruity. It was ten minutes later that the horsemen rode up. By then the herd was almost docile. They looked at the horses. They looked at Rincewind, who grinned horribly and said, 'No worries.' Very slowly, he didn't fall off Snowy. He simply swivelled sideways, with his feet still twisted together, until his head banged gently on the ground. That was bloody great riding, mate!'

'Could someone separate my ankles, please? I fear they may have fused together.' A couple of the riders dismounted and, after some effort, pulled him free. The leader looked down at him. 'Name your price for that little battler, mate!' said Remorse. 'Er . . . three . . . er . . . squids?' said Rincewind, muzzily. 'What? For a wiry little devil like that? He's got to be worth a coupla hundred at least!'

'Three squids is all I've got . . .'

'I reckon a few of them rocks hit him on the head,' said one of the stockmen who were holding Rincewind up. 'I mean I'll buy him off'f you, mister,' said Remorse, patiently. 'Tell you what – two hundred squids, a bag of tucker and we'll set you right on the road to . . . Where was it he wanted to go, Clancy?'

'Bugarup,' murmured Rincewind. 'Oh, you don't wanna go to Bugarup,' said Remorse. 'Nothing in Bugarup but a bunch of wowsers and pooftahs.'

'

's okay, I like parrots,' mumbled Rincewind, who was just hoping that they would let him go so that he could hold on to the ground again. 'Er . . . what's Ecksian for going mad with terrified fatigue and collapsing in a boneless heap?' The men looked at one another. 'Isn't that “snagged as a wombat's tonker”?'

'No, no, no, that's when you chuck a twister, isn't it?' said Clancy. 'What? Strewth, no. Chucking a twister's when . . . when you . . . yeah, it's when you . . . yeah, it's when your nose . . . Hang on, that's “bend a smartie” . . .'

'Er—' said Rincewind, clutching his head. 'What? “Bend a smartie” is when your ears get blocked underwater.' Clancy looked uncertain, and then seemed to reach a decision. 'Yeah, that's right!'

'Nah, that's “gonging like a possum's armpit”, mate.'

'Excuse me—' said Rincewind. 'That ain't right. “Gonging like a possum's armpit” is when you crack a crusty. When your ears are stuffed like a Mudjee's kettle after a week of Fridays, that's “stuck up like Morgan's mule”.'

'No, you're referrin' to “happier than Morgan's mule in a choccy patch”—'

'You mean “as fast as Morgan's mule after it ate Ma's crow pie”.'

'How fast was that? Exactly?' said Rincewind. They all stared at him. Taster'n an eel in a snakepit, mate!' said Clancy. 'Don't you understand plain language?'

'Yeah,' said one of the men, 'he might be a fancy rider but I reckon he's dumber than a—'

'Don't anyone say anything!' shouted Rincewind. 'I'm feeling a lot better, all right? Just . . . all right, all right?' He straightened his ragged robe and adjusted his hat. 'Now, if you could just set me on the right road to Bugarup, I will not trespass further on your time. You may keep Snowy. He can bed down on a ceiling somewhere.'

'Oh, no, mister,' said Remorse. He reached into a shirt pocket, pulled out a bundle of notes and licked his thumb to count off twenty. 'I always pays me debts. You want to stay with us a while first? We could use another rider and it's tough going on the road by yourself. There's bush rangers about.' Rincewind rubbed his head again. Now that his various bodily organs had wobbled their way back into their approximate positions he could get back to general low-key generalized dread.

They won't have to worry about me,' he mumbled. 'I promise not to light fires or feed the animals. Well, I say promise - most of the time they're trying to feed off me.' Remorse shrugged. 'Just so long as there's no more of those damn dropping bears,' said Rincewind. The men laughed. 'Drop-bears? Who's been feedin' you a line about drop-bears?'

'What do you mean?'

'There's no such thing as drop-bears! Someone must've seen you coming, mate!'

'Huh? They've got . . . they went,' Rincewind waved his arm, 'boing . . . all over the place . . . great big teeth . . .'

'I reckon he madder'n Morgan's mule, mate!' said Clancy. The group went silent. 'How mad is that, then?' said Rincewind. Clancy leaned on his saddle and looked nervously at the other men. He licked his lips. 'Well, it's . . .'

'Yes?'

'Well, it's . . . it's . . .' His face twisted up. 'It's . . .'

'Ver'. . .?' Rincewind hinted. 'Ver' . . .' Clancy mumbled, clutching the syllable like a lifeline. 'Hmm?'

'Ver . . . ry . . .'

'Keep going, keep going . . .'

'Ver . . . ry . . . mad?' said Clancy. 'Well done! See? So much easier,' said Rincewind. 'Someone mentioned something about food?' Remorse nodded to one of the men, who handed Rincewind a sack. 'There's beer and veggies and stuff and, 'cos you're a good sport, we're giving you a tin of jam, too.'

'Gooseberry?'

'Yep.'

'And I'm wondering about your hat,' said Remorse. 'Why's there all corks round it?'

'Knocks the flies out,' said Rincewind. 'That works, does it?'

'Course not,' said Clancy. 'If'n it does, some-one'd have thought of it by now.'

'Yes. Me,' said Rincewind. 'No worries.'

'Makes you look a bit of a drongo, mate,' said Clancy. 'Oh, good,' said Rincewind. 'Which way's Bugarup?'

'Just turn left at the bottom of the canyon, mate.'

'That's all?'

'You can ask again when you meet the bush rangers.'

'They've got some sort of cabin or station, have they?'

'They've . . . Well, just remember they'll find you if you get lost.'

'Really? Oh, well, I suppose that's part of their job. Good day to you.'

'G'day.'

'No worries.' The men watched Rincewind until he was out of sight. 'Didn't seem very bothered, did he?'

'He's a bit gujeroo, if you ask me.'

'Clancy?'

'Yes, boss?'

'You made that one up, didn't you . . .?'

'Well . . .'

'You bloody did, Clancy.'

Clancy looked embarrassed, but then rallied. 'All right, then,' he said hotly. 'What about that one you used yesterday, “as busy as a one- armed carpenter in Smackaroo”?'

'What about it?'

'I looked it up in the atlas and there's no such place, boss.'

'There damn well is!' There isn't. Anyway, no one'd employ a one-armed carpenter, would they? So he wouldn't be busy, would he?'

'Listen, Clancy—'

'He'd go fishing or something, wouldn't he?'

'Clancy, we're supposed to be carving a new language out of the wilderness here—'

'Probably'd need someone to help him bait the line, but—'

'Clancy, will you shut up and go and get the horses?' It took twenty minutes to roll enough of the rocks away, and five minutes after that Clancy reported back. 'Can't find the little bastard, boss. And we looked underneath all the others.'

'It couldn't have got past us!'

'Yes it could, boss. You saw it goin' up those cliffs. Probably miles away by now. You want I should go after that bloke?' Remorse thought about it, and spat. 'No, we got the colt back. That's worth the money.' He stared reflectively down the canyon. 'You all right, boss?'

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