The Last Continent Page 26


'We'll lock up his mallets when we get back, depend upon it,' Ridcully whispered. 'He's got books and books about croquet in his room, did you know that? Some of them have got coloured illustrations!'

'What of?'

'Famous croquet strokes,' said the Dean. 'I think we ought to take his mallet away.'

'Close to what I was thinking, Dean. Close,' said Ridcully.

Once a moderately jolly wizard camped by a dried-up waterhole under the shade of a tree that he was completely unable to identify. And he swore as he hacked and hacked at a can of beer, saying, 'What kind of idiots put beer in tins?' By the time he managed to make a hole with a sharp stone the beer came out as high-speed froth, but he fielded as much as he could. Apart from the beer, though, things were looking up. He'd checked the trees for drop-bears and, best of all, there was no sign of Scrappy. He managed to pierce another tin, more carefully this time, and sucked thoughtfully at the contents. What a country! Nothing was exactly what it turned out to be, even the sparrows talked, or at least tried to say, 'Who's a pretty boy, then?' and it never ever rained. And all the water hid underground, so they had to pump it out with windmills. He'd passed another one as he left the canyon country. This one was still managing a trickle of water, but it had dried up to an occasional drip even as he watched it. Damn! He should've picked up some water to take away while he was there. He looked at the food in the sack. There was a loaf of bread the size and weight of a cannonball, and some vegetables. But at least they were recognizable vegetables. There was even a potato. He held it up against the sunset. Rincewind had eaten in many countries on the Disc, and sometimes he'd been able to complete an entire meal before having to run away. And they'd always lacked something. Oh, people did great things with spices and olives and yams and rice and whatnot, but what he'd come to crave was the humble potato. Time was when a plate of mash or chips would have been his for the asking. All he'd needed to do was wander down to the kitchens and ask. Food was always available for the asking at Unseen University, you could say that for the place, even if you said it with your mouth full. And, ridiculous though it sounded now, he'd hardly ever done that. The dish of potatoes'd come past at mealtimes and he'd probably have a spoonful but, sometimes, he wouldn't! He'd . . . let . . . the . . . dish . . . go . . . by. He'd have rice instead. Rice! All very nutritious in its way, but basically only grown where potatoes would've floated to the surface. He'd remember those times, sometimes, usually in his sleep, and wake up shouting, 'Will you pass the potatoes, please!' Sometimes he remembered the melted butter. Those were the bad days. He placed the potato reverentially on the ground and tipped out the rest of the bag. There was an onion and some carrots. A tin of . . . tea. by the smell of it, and a little box of salt.

A flash of inspiration struck him with all the force and brilliance that ideas have when they're travelling through beer. Soup! Nutritious and simple! You just boiled everything up! And, yes, he could use one of the empty beer tins, and make a fire, and chop up the vegetables, and the damp patch over there suggested there was water . . . He walked unsteadily over to have a look. There was a circular depression in the ground that looked as though it might have been some sort of pond once, and there was the usual cluster of slightly healthier than usual trees which you got in such places, but there was no sign of any water and he was too tired to dig. Then another insight struck him at the speed of beer. Beer! It was only water, really, with stuff in it. Wasn't it? And most of what was in it was yeast, which was practically a medicine and definitely a food. In fact, when you thought about it beer was only a kind of runny bread, in fact, it 'd be better to use some of the beer in the soup! Beer soup! A few brain cells registered their doubt, but the rest of them grabbed them by the collar and said hoarsely, people cooked chicken in wine, didn't they? It took him some time to hack one end off a tin, but eventually he had it standing in the fire with the chopped-up vegetables floating in the froth. A few more doubts assailed him at this point, but they were elbowed aside, especially when the smell that floated up made his mouth water and he'd opened another tin of beer as a pre-prandial appetizer. After a while he poked the vegetables with a stick. They were still pretty hard, even though a lot of the beer seemed to have boiled away. Was there something else he hadn't done? Salt! Yes, that was it! Salt, marvellous stuff. He'd read where you went totally up the pole if you didn't have any salt for a couple of weeks. That was probably why he was feeling so odd at the moment. He fumbled for the salt box and dropped a pinch in the tin. It was a medicinal herb, salt. Good for wounds, wasn't it? And back in the really old days, hadn't soldiers been paid in salt? Wasn't that where the word salary came from? Must ve been good, then. You went on a forced march all week, building your road as you went, then you fought the maddened blue-painted tribesmen of the Vexatii, and you force-marched all the way back home, and on Friday the centurion would turn up with a big sack and say, 'Well done, lads! Here's some salt!' It was amazing how well his mind was working. He peered at the salt box again, shrugged, and tipped it all in. When you thought about it like that, salt must really be an amazing food. And he hadn't had any for weeks, so that was probably why his eyesight was acting up and he couldn't feel his legs. He topped up the beer, too. He lay back with his head on a rock. Keep out of trouble and don't get involved, that was the important thing. Look at those stars up there, with nothing to do all the time but sit there and shine. No one ever told them what to do, the lucky bastards . . .

He woke up shivering. Something horrible had crawled into his mouth, and it was no great relief to find out that it was his tongue. It was chilly, and the horizon suggested dawn. There was also a pathetic sucking noise. Some sheep had invaded his camp during the night. One of them was trying to get its mouth around an empty beer tin. It stopped when it saw that he had woken up, and backed away a bit, but not too far, while fixing him with the penetrating gaze of a domesticated animal reminding its domesticator that they had a deal. His head ached. There had to be some water somewhere. He lurched to his feet and blinked at the horizon. There were . . . windmills and things, weren't there? He remembered the stricken windmills from yesterday. Well, there was bound to be some water around, no matter what anyone said. Ye gods, he was thirsty. His gummed-up gaze fell upon last night's magnificent experiment in cookery. Yeasty vegetable soup, what a wonderful idea. Exactly the sort of idea that sounds really good around one o'clock in the morning when you've had too much to drink. Now he remembered, with a shudder, some of the great wheezes he'd had on similar occasions. Spaghetti and custard, that'd been a good one. Deep-fried peas, that'd been another triumph. And then there'd been the time when it had seemed a really good idea to eat some flour and yeast and then drink some warm water, because he'd run out of bread and after all that was what the stomach saw, wasn't it? The thing about late-night cookery was that it made sense at the time. It always had some logic behind it. It just wasn't the kind of logic you'd use around midday. Still, he'd have to eat something and the dark brown goo that half filled the tin was the only available food in this vicinity that didn't have at least six legs. He didn't even think about eating mutton. You couldn't, when it was looking at you so pathetically. He poked the goo with the stick. It gripped the wood like glue. 'Gerroff!' A blob eventually came loose. Rincewind tasted it, gingerly. It was just possible that if you mixed yeasty beer and vegetables together you'd get— No, what you got was salty-tasting beery brown gunk. Odd, though . . . It was kind of horrible, but nevertheless Rincewind found himself having another taste. Oh, gods. Now he was really thirsty. He picked up the tin and staggered off towards some trees. That's where you found water . . . you looked at where the trees were and, tired or not, you dug down.

It took him half an hour to squash an empty beer tin and use it to dig a hole waist deep. His toes felt damp. Another half an hour took him to shoulder depth and a pair of wet ankles. Say what you like – that brown muck was good stuff. It was the runny equivalent of dwarf bread. You didn't really believe what your mouth said you'd just tasted, so you had some more. Probably full of nourishing vitamins and minerals. Most things you couldn't believe the taste of generally were . . . By the time he raised his head he was surrounded by sheep, eyeing him cautiously in between longing glances into the damp depths. 'It's no good you lot looking at me like that,' he said. They paid no attention. They carried on looking at him. 'It's not my fault,' Rincewind muttered. 'I don't care what any kangaroo says. I just arrived here. I'm not responsible for the weather, for heaven's sake.' They went on looking. He cracked. Practically anyone will crack before a sheep cracks. A sheep hasn't got much that's crackable. 'Oh, hell, maybe I can rig up some kind of bucket and pulley arrangement,' he said. 'It's not as though I've got any appointments today.' He was digging a bit further, in the hope of getting deep enough before the water ran away completely, when he heard someone whistling. He looked up, through the legs of the sheep. A man was creeping down across the dried-up waterhole, whistling tunelessly between his teeth. He'd failed to notice Rincewind because his gaze was fixed so intently on the milling sheep. He dropped the pack he'd been carrying, pulled out a sack, sidled towards a sheep all by itself, and leapt. It barely had time to bleat. As he was stuffing it into the sack a voice said: That probably belongs to someone, you know.' The man looked around hurriedly. The voice was coming from a group of sheep. 'I reckon you could get into serious trouble, stealing sheep. You'll regret it later on, I'm sure. Probably someone really cares about that sheep. Come on, let it go.' The man stared around wildly. 'I mean, think about it,' the voice went on. 'You've got this nice country here, parrots and everything, and you're going to spoil it all by stealing someone's sheep that they've worked so hard to grow. I bet you wouldn't like to be remembered as a sheep-stealer— Oh.' The man had dropped the sack and was running away very fast.

'Well, you didn't have to waltz off like that, I was only trying to appeal to your better nature!' said Rincewind, pulling himself up out of the hole. He cupped his hands. 'And you've forgotten your camping stuff!' he shouted, after the disappearing dust. The sack baa-ed. Rincewind picked it up, and a noise behind him made him look round. There was another man watching him from the back of a horse. He was glaring. Behind him were three men wearing identical helmets and jerkins and humourless expressions that had 'watchman' written all over them in slow handwriting. And all three were pointing crossbows at him. That bottomless feeling that he had once again wandered into something that didn't concern him and was going to find it hard to wander out again grew within Rincewind. He tried to smile. 'G'day!' he said. 'No worries, eh? I must say I'm really glad to see you drongos and no two ways about it!' Ponder Stibbons cleared his throat. 'Where would you like me to start?' he said. 'I could probably finish off the elephant . . .'

'How are you at slime?' Ponder hadn't considered a future as a slime designer, but everyone had to start somewhere. 'Fine,' he said. Tine.'

'Of course, slime just splits down the middle,' said the god, as they walked along rows of glowing, life-filled cubes while beetles sizzled overhead. 'Not a lot of future in that, really. It works all right for lower lifeforms but, frankly, it's a bit embarrassing for the more complicated creatures and positively lethal for horses. No, sex is going to be very, very useful, Ponder. It'll keep everything on its toes. And that will give us time to work on the big project.' Ponder sighed. Ah . . . he knew there had to be a big project. The big project. A god wasn't going to do all this sort of thing just to make life better for inflammable cows. 'Could I help with that?' he said. 'I'm sure I could make a contribution.'

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