The Last Continent Page 28


'Shut up.'

'Baah?'

'Couldn't you have had a bath, or a dip or something? It's a bit agricultural in here.' The wall, now his eyes had become accustomed to the gloom, was covered with scrawls, and in particular those little wicket gate tallies drawn by prisoners who were counting the days. They were going to hang him in the morning, so that was one chore he wouldn't have to . . . Shut up, shut up. Now he came to look closer, most of the counts went up to one. He lay back with his eyes closed. Of course he'd get rescued, he'd always got rescued. Although, come to think of it, always in circumstances that put him in such a lot more danger than a prison cell usually held.

Well, he'd been in enough cells. There were ways to handle these things. The important thing was to be direct. He got up and banged on the bars until the warder sauntered along the corridor. 'Yes, mate?'

'I just want to get things sorted out,' said Rincewind. 'It's not as though I've got time to waste, okay?'

'Yep?'

'Is there any chance that you're going to fall asleep in a chair opposite this cell with your keys fully exposed on a table in front of you?' They looked at the empty corridor. 'I'd have to get someone to help me bring a table down here,' said the warder doubtfully. 'Can't see it happening, mister. Sorry.'

'Right. Okay.' Rincewind thought for a moment. 'All right . . . Is my dinner likely to be brought in by a young lady carrying, and this is important, carrying a tray covered with a cloth?'

'No, 'cos I do the cooking.'

'Right.'

'Bread and water is what I'm good at.'

'Right, just checking.'

' 'ere, that sticky brown stuff they brought in with you is top stuff on bread, mister.'

'Be my guest.'

'I can feel the vitamins and minerals doing me a power of good.'

'No worries. Now . . . ah, yes. Laundry. Are there any big laundry baskets around, which will happily get tipped down a chute to the outside world?'

'Sorry, mister. There's an old washerwoman comes in to collect it.'

'Really?' Rincewind brightened. 'Ah, a washerwoman. Big lady, bulky dress, possibly wears a hood which can be pulled down to cover a lot of her face?'

'Yep, pretty much.'

'Well then, is she due in—?'

'She's my mum,' said the warder.

'Right, fine . . .' They looked at one another. 'I reckon that about covers it, then,' said Rincewind. 'I hope you didn't mind me asking.'

'Bless yew, no! No worries! Happy to help. Worked out what yew're gonna say on the gallows, have yer? Only some of the ballad-writers want to know, if yew wouldn't mind.'

'Ballads?'

'Oh, yeah. There's three so far and I reckon there'll be ten by tomorra.' Rincewind rolled his eyes. 'How many of them have put “too-ra-la, too-ra-la addity” in the chorus?' he asked. 'All of them.'

'Oh, gods . . .'

'And yew wouldn't mind changin' your name. would yew? Only they're sayin' “Rincewind” is a bit tricky to turn a line on. “Concernin' of a bush ranger, Rincewind was his name . . .” 's got the wrong sort of sound . . .'

'Well, I'm sorry. Perhaps you'd better let me go, then?'

'Ha, nice one. Now, if you want my advice, you'll keep it short when yew're up on the gallows,' said the warder. 'The best Famous Last Words are the shortest. Something simple gen'rally works best. Go easy on the swearin'.'

'Look, all I did was steal a sheep! And I didn't even do that! What's everyone so excited about?' said Rincewind desperately. 'Oh, very notorious crime, sheep-stealing,' said the warder cheerfully. 'Strikes a chord. Little man battlin' against the forces of brutal authority. People like that. You'll be remembered in song 'n' story, 'specially if yew come up with some good Last Words, like I said.' The warder hitched up his belt. 'To tell you the truth, a lot of people these days haven't even seen a bloody sheep, but hearing that someone's stolen one makes 'em feel proper Ecksians. It even does me good to have a proper criminal in the cells for once, instead of all these bloody politicians.' Rincewind sat down on the bunk again, with his head in his hands. 'O' course, a famous escape is nearly as good as gettin' hanged,' said the warder, in the manner of someone trying to keep up someone else's spirits. 'Really,' said Rincewind. 'Yew ain't asked if the little grille in the floor there leads into the sewers,' the warder prompted.

Rincewind peered between his fingers. 'Does it?'

'We ain't got any sewers.'

'Thank you. You've been very helpful.' The warden strolled off again, whistling. Rincewind lay back on the bunk and closed his eyes again. 'Baah!'

'Shut up.'

' 'scuse me, mister . . .' Rincewind groaned and sat up again. This time the voice was coming from the high, small, barred window. 'Yes, what is it?'

'Yew know when you was caught?'

'Well? What about it?'

'Er . . . what kind of a tree were you under?' Rincewind looked up at the narrow square of blue the prisoner calls the sky. 'What kind of question is that to ask me?'

'It's for the ballad, see? Only it'd help if it was a name with three syllables . . .'

'How do I know? I didn't stop for a bit of botany!'

'All right, all right, fair enough,' said the hidden speaker. 'But would you mind telling me what you was doing just before you stole the sheep?'

'I didn't steal the sheep!'

'Right, right, okay . . . What was you doing just before you didn't steal the sheep . . .?'

'I don't know, I can't remember!'

'Were you boiling your billy, by any chance?'

'I'm not admitting to that! The way you people talk, that could mean anything!'

'Means cookin' something up in a tin.'

'Oh. Well, yes, I had been doing that, as it happens.'

'Good on yer!' Rincewind thought he heard the sound of scribbling. 'Shame you didn't die at the end, but you're gonna get hung so that's all right. Got a beaut tune for this one, you just can't stop whistling it . . . Well, of course you will, no worries.'

'Thank you for that.'

'Reckon you might be as famous as Tinhead Ned, mate.'

'Really.' Rincewind went and lay down on his bunk again. 'Yeah. They used to lock him up in that very cell you're in now, in fact. And he always escaped. No one knows how, 'cos that's a bloody good lock and he didn't bend any bars. He said they'd never build a jail that could hold him.'

'Thin fellow, was he?'

'Nope.'

'So he had a key or something.'

'Nope. Got to go now, mate. Oh, yeah, I remember. Er, do you think your ghost will be heard if people pass by the billybong, or not?'

'What?'

'It'd be helpful if it did. Makes a good last verse. Top stuff.'

'I don't know!'

'We-ell, I'll say it will, shall I? No one's gonna go back and check.'

'Don't let me stand in your way, then.'

'Bonza. I'll get these songsheets printed up in time for the hanging, don't you worry about that.'

'I won't.' Rincewind lay back. Tinhead Ned again. That was just a joke, he could spot it. It was some kind of torture, telling him that anyone had ever escaped from a cell like this. They wanted him to run around rattling bars and things, but even he could see they were well set in and very heavy and the lock was bigger than his head. He was just lying back on the bunk again when the warder turned up. There were a couple of men with him. Rincewind was pretty sure there weren't any trolls here, because it was probably too hot for them and anyway there wouldn't be enough room for them on the driftwood, what with all those camels, but these men definitely had the heavy-set look of men who occupy the kind of job where the entrance examination is 'What is your name?' and they scrape through on the third try.

The warder was wearing a big grin and carrying a tray. 'Got some dinnah for you,' he said. 'I won't tell you anything, no matter how much you feed me,' Rincewind warned. 'You'll like this,' the warder urged, pushing the tray forward. There was a covered bowl on it. 'I done it special for you. It's a regional speciality mate.'

'I thought you said bread and water's what you're good at.'

'Well, yeah . . . but I had a bash at this anyway . . .' Rincewind watched gloomily as the warder lifted the cover.[18] It looked fairly inoffensive, but they often did. It looked, in fact, like— 'Pea soup?' he said. 'Yep.'

'The leguminous vegetable? Comes in pods?'

'Yep.'

'I thought I'd better check that point.'

'No worries.' Rincewind looked down at the knobbly green surface. Was it just possible that someone had invented a regional speciality you could eat? And then something rose out of the depths. For a moment Rincewind thought it was a very small shark. It bobbed to the surface and then settled back down, while the soup slopped over it. 'What was that?'

'Meat pie floater,' said the warder. 'Meat pie floating in pea soup. Best bloody supper on earth, mate.'

'Ah, supper,' said Rincewind, as realization dawned. 'This is another one of those late-night, after-the-pub foods, right? And what kind of meat is in it? No, forget I asked, it's a stupid question. I know this sort of food. If you have to ask “What kind of meat is in it?” you're too sober. Ever tried spaghetti and custard?'

'Can you sprinkle coconut on top of it?'

'Probably.'

'Thanks, mate, I'll surely give it a go,' said the warder. 'Got some other good news for you, too.'

'You're letting me out?'

'Oh, you wouldn't want that, a hard-bitten larrikin like yourself. Nah, Greg and Vince here will be coming back later to put you in irons.' He stepped aside. The wall-shaped men were holding a length of chain, several shackles and a small but very, very heavy-looking ball. Rincewind sighed. One door closes, he thought, and another door slams shut. 'This is good, is it?' he said. 'Oh, yew'll get an extra verse for that, for sure,' said the warder. 'No one's been hung in irons since Tinhead Ned.'

'I thought there wasn't a prison cell that could hold him,' said Rincewind. 'Oh, he could get out of 'em,' said the warder. 'He just couldn't run very far.' Rincewind eyed the metal ball. 'Oh, gods . . .'

'Vince says how much do you weigh, 'cos he has to add the chains to your weight to get the drop right,' said the warder. 'Does that matter?' said Rincewind in a hollow voice. 'I mean, I die anyway, don't I?'

'Yeah, no worries there, but if he gets it wrong, see, you either end up with a neck six feet long or, you'll laugh about this, your head flies off like a perishin' cork!'

'Oh, good.'

'With Larrikin Larry we had to search the roof all arvo!'

'Marvellous. All arvo, eh?' said Rincewind. 'Well, you won't have that problem with me. I shall be elsewhere when I'm being hanged.'

'That's what we like to hear!' said the warder, punching him jovially in the elbow. 'A battler to the end, eh?' There was a rumbling from Mt Vince. 'And Vince says he'll be very privileged if you'd care to spit in his eye when he puts the rope aroun' your neck,' the warder went on. 'That'll be something to show his grandchildren—'

'Will you all please go away!' Rincewind shouted. 'Ah, you'll be wanting some time to plot your getaway,' said the warder knowingly. 'No worries. We'll be leavin' you alone, then.'

'Thank you.'

'Until about five a.m.'

'Good,' said Rincewind gloomily. 'Got any requests for your last breakfast?'

'Something that takes a really really long time to prepare?' said Rincewind. 'That's the spirit!'

'Go away!'

'No worries.' The men walked off, but the warder strolled back after a while as if he had something on his mind. 'There is something that you ought to know about the hanging, though,' he said. 'Might brighten up your night.'

'Yes?'

'We've got a special humanitarian tradition if the trapdoor sticks three times.'

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