Lords and Ladies Page 39

“Bet you half a dollar?”

Nanny was suddenly flustered.

“Don't you look at me like that! Esme's right. Of course she's right. We don't want elves anymore. Stands to reason.”

“Esme's the short one, is she?”

“Hah, no, Esme's the tall one with the nose. You know her.”

“Right, yes.”

“The short one is Magrat. She's a kind-hearted soul and a bit soft. Wears flowers in her hair and believes in songs, I reckon she'd be off dancing with the elves quick as a wink, her.”

More doubts were entering Magrat's life. They concerned crossbows, for one thing. A crossbow is a very useful and usable weapon designed for speed and convenience and deadliness in the hands of the inexperienced, like a faster version of an out-of-code TV dinner. But it is designed to be used once, by someone who has somewhere safe to duck while they reload. Otherwise it is just so much metal and wood with a piece of string on it.

Then there was the sword. Despite Shawn's misgivings, Magrat did in theory know what you did with a sword. You tried to stick it into the enemy by a vigorous arm motion, and the enemy tried to stop you. She was a little uncertain about what happened next. She hoped you were allowed another go.

She was also having doubts about her armour. The helmet and the breastplate were OK, but the rest of it was chain-mail. And, as Shawn Ogg knew, chain-mail from the point of view of an arrow can be thought of as a series of loosely connected holes.

The rage was still there, the pure fury still gripped her at the core. But there was no getting away from the fact that the heart it gripped was surrounded by the rest of Magrat Garlick, spinster of this parish and likely to remain so.

There were no elves visible in the town, but she could see where they had been. Doors hung off their hinges. The place looked as though it had been visited by Genghiz Cohen.[41]

Now she was on the track that led to the stones. It was wider than it had been; the horses and carriages had churned it on the way up, and the fleeing people had turned it into a mire on the way down.

She knew she was being watched, and it almost came as a relief when three elves stepped out from under the trees before she'd even lost sight of the castle.

The middle one grinned.

“Good evening, girl,” it said. “My name is Lord Lankin, and you will curtsy when you talk to me.”

The tone suggested that there was absolutely no possibility that she would disobey She felt her muscles strain to comply.

Queen Ynci wouldn't have obeyed . . .

“I happen to be practically the queen,” she said.

It was the first time she'd looked an elf in the face when she was in any condition to notice details. This one was currently wearing high cheekbones and hair tied in a ponytail; it wore odds and ends of rags and lace and fur, confident in the knowledge that anything would look good on an elf.

It wrinkled its perfect nose at her.

“There is only one Queen in Lancre,” it said. “And you are, most definitely, not her.”

Magrat tried to concentrate.

“Where is she, then?” she said.

The other two raised their bows.

“You are looking for the Queen? Then we will take you to her,” Lankin stated. “And, lady, should you be inclined to make use of that nasty iron bow there are more archers hidden in the trees.” There was indeed a rustling in the trees on one side of the track, but it was followed by a thump. The elves looked disconcerted.

“Get out of my way,” said Magrat.

“I think you have a very wrong idea,” said the elf. Its smile widened, but vanished when there was another sylvan crash from the other side of the track.

“We felt you coming all the way up the track,” said the elf. “The brave girl off to rescue her lover! Oh, the romance! Take her.”

A shadow rose up behind the two armed elves, took a head in either hand, and banged them together.

The shadow stepped forward over their bodies and, as Lankin turned, caught it with one roundarm punch that picked it up and slammed it into a tree.

Magrat drew her sword.

Whatever this was, it looked worse than elves. It was muddy and hairy and almost troll-like in its build, and it reached out for the bridle with an arm that seemed to extend for ever. She raised the sword-

“Oook?”

“Put the sword down, please, miss!”

The voice came from somewhere behind her, but it sounded human and worried. Elves never sounded worried.

“Who are you?” she said, without turning around. The monster in front of her gave her a big, yellow-toothed grin.

“Um, I'm Ponder Stibbons. A wizard. And he's a wizard, too.”

“He's got no clothes on!”

“I could get him to have a bath, if you like,” said Ponder, slightly hysterically. “He always puts on an old green dressing gown when he's had a bath.”

Magrat relaxed a bit. No one who sounded like that could be much of a threat, except to themselves.

“Whose side are you on, Mr. Wizard?”

“How many are there?”

“Oook?”

“When I get off this horse,” said Magrat, “it'll bolt. So can you ask your . . . friend to let go of the bridle? He'll be hurt.”

“Oook?”

“Um. Probably not.”

Magrat slid off. The horse, relieved of the presence of iron, bolted. For about two yards.

“Oook.”

The horse was struggling to get back on its feet.

Magrat blinked.

“Um, he's just a bit annoyed at the moment,” said Ponder. “One of the . . . elves . . . shot him with an arrow.”

“But they do that to control people!”

“Um. He's not a person.”

“Oook!”

“Genetically, I mean.”

Magrat had met wizards before. Occasionally one visited Lancre, although they didn't stay very long. There was something about the presence of Granny Weatherwax that made them move on.

They didn't look like Ponder Stibbons. He'd lost most of his robe and, of his hat, only the brim remained. Most of his face was covered in mud, and there was a multicoloured bruise over one eye.

“Did they do that to you?”

“Well, the mud and the torn clothes is just from, you know, the forest. And we've run into-”

“Ook.”

“-over elves a few times. But this is when the Librarian hit me.”

“Oook.”

“Thank goodness,” Ponder added. “Knocked me cold. Otherwise I'd be like the others.”

A foreboding of a conversation to come swept over Magrat.

“What others?” she snapped.

“Are you alone?”

“What others?”

“Have you any idea what's been happening?”

Magrat thought about the castle, and the town.

“I might be able to hazard a guess,” she said.

Ponder shook his head.

“It's worse than that,” he said.

“What others?” said Magrat.

“I think there's definitely been a cross-continuum break-through, and I'm sure there's a difference in energy levels.”

“But what others?” Magrat insisted.

Ponder Stibbons glanced nervously at the surrounding forest.

“Let's get off the path. There's a lot more elves back there.”

Ponder disappeared into the undergrowth. Magrat followed him, and found a second wizard propped against a tree like a ladder. He had a huge smile creasing his face.

“The Bursar,” said Ponder. “I think we may have overdone the dried frog pills a bit.” He raised his voice. “How . . . are . . . you . . . doing . . . sir?”

“Why, I'll have a little of the roast weasel, if you would be so good,” said the Bursar, beaming happily at nothing.

“Why's he gone so stiff?” said Magrat. “We think it's some kind of side effect,” said Ponder. “Can't you do anything about it?”

“What, and have nothing to cross streams on?”

“Call again tomorrow, baker, and we'll have a crusty one!” said the Bursar.

“Besides, he seems quite happy,” said Ponder. “Are you a warrior, miss?”

“What?” said Magrat. “Well, I mean, the armour and everything . . .” Magrat looked down. She was still holding the sword. The helmet kept falling over her eyes, but she'd padded it a bit with a scrap of wedding dress.

“I . . . er . . . yes. Yes, that's right. That's what I am,” she said. “Absolutely. Yes.”

“Here for the wedding, I expect. Like us.”

“That's right. Definitely here for the wedding. That's true.” She changed her grip on the sword. “Now tell me what happened,” she said. “Paying particular attention to what happened to the others.”

“Well . . .” Ponder absentmindedly picked up a corner of his torn robe and began to screw it up in his fingers. “We all went to see this Entertainment, you see. A play. You know. Acting? And, and it was very funny. There were all these yokels in their big boots and everything, straw wigs and everything, clumping around pretending to be lords and ladies and everything, and getting it all wrong. It was very funny. The Bursar laughed at them a lot. Mind you, he's been laughing at trees and rocks, too. But everyone was having fun. And then . . . and then . . .”

“I want to know everything,” said Magrat. “Well . . . well . . . then there was this bit I can't really remember. It was something to do with the acting, I think. I mean, suddenly . . . suddenly it all seemed real. Do you know what I mean?”

“No.”

“There was this chap with a red nose and bandy legs and he was playing the Queen of the Fairies or something and suddenly he was still him but. . . everything felt. . . everything round me just vanished, there was just the actors . . . and there was this hill . . . I mean, they must have been good, because I really believed . . . I think at some point I remember someone asking us to clap our hands . . . and everyone was looking very strange and there was this singing and it was wonderful and . . . and . . .”

“Oook.”

“Then the Librarian hit me,” said Ponder simply.

“Why?”

“Best if he tells it in his own words,” said Ponder.

“Oook ook eek. Ook! Ook!”

“Cough, Julia! Over the bender!” said the Bursar.

“I didn't understand what the Librarian said,” said Magrat.

“Um. We were all present at an interdimensional rip,” said Ponder. “Caused by belief. The play was the last little thing that opened it up. There must have been a very delicate area of instability very close. It's hard to describe, but if you had a rubber sheet and some lead weights I could demonstrate-”

“You're trying to tell me those . . . things exist because people believe in them?”

“Oh, no. I imagine they exist anyway. They're here because people believe in them here.”

“Ook.”

“He ran off with us. They shot an arrow at him.”

“Eeek.”

“But it just made him itch.”

“Ook.”

“Normally he's as gentle as a lamb. Really he is.”

“Ook.”

“But he can't abide elves. They smell wrong to him.”

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