4,053
26.12.2018

“I wasn't actually asking you to come. Does the pointy bit go in front?”

Cutangle moaned.

“This is all very creditable,” he said, “but perhaps we can wait till morning?”

A flash of lightning illuminated Granny's face.

“Perhaps not,” Cutangle conceded. He lumbered along the jetty and pulled the little rowing boat towards him. Getting in was a matter of luck but he managed it eventually, fumbling with the painter in the darkness.

The boat swung out into the flood and was carried away, spinning slowly.

Granny clung to the seat as it rocked in the turbulent waters, and looked expectantly at Cutangle through the murk.

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?” said Cutangle.

“You said you knew all about boats.”

“No. I said you didn't.”

“Oh.”

They hung on as the boat wallowed heavily, miraculously righted itself, and was carried backwards downstream.

“When you said you hadn't been in a boat since you were a boy. . .” Granny began.

“I was two years old, I think.”

The boat caught on a whirlpool, spun around, and shot off across the flow.

“I had you down as the sort of boy who was in and out of boats all day long.”

“I was born up in the mountains. I get seasick on damp grass, if you must know,” said Cutangle.

The boat banged heavily against a submerged tree trunk, and a wavelet lapped the prow.

“I know a spell against drowning,” he added miserably.

“I'm glad about that.”

“Only you have to say it while you're standing on dry land.”

“Fake your boots off.” Granny commanded.

“What?”

“Take your boots off, man!”

Cutangle shifted uneasily on his bench.

“What have you in mind?” he said.

“The water is supposed to be outside the boat, I know that much!” Granny pointed to the dark tide sloshing around the bilges: “Fill your boots with water and tip it over the side!”

Cutangle nodded. He felt that the last couple of hours had somehow carried him along without him actually touching the sides, and for a moment he nursed the strangely consoling feeling that his life was totally beyond his control and whatever happened no one could blame him. Filling his boots with water while adrift on a flooded river at midnight with what he could only describe as a woman seemed about as logical as anything could be in the circumstances.

A fine figure of a woman, said a neglected voice at the back of his mind. There was something about the way she used the tattered broomstick to scull the boat across the choppy water that troubled long-forgotten bits of Cutangle's subconscious.

Not that he could be certain about the fine figure, of course, what with the rain and the wind and Granny's habit of wearing her entire wardrobe in one go. Cutangle cleared his throat uncertainly. Metaphorically a fine figure, he decided.

“Um, look,” he said. “This is all very creditable, but consider the facts, I mean, the rate of drift and so forth, you see? It could be miles out on the ocean by now. It might never come to shore again. It might even go over the Rimfall.”

Granny, who had been staring out across the water, turned around.

“Can't you think of anything else at all helpful that we could be doing?” she demanded.

Cutangle baled for a few moments.

“No,” he said.

“Have you ever heard of anyone coming Back?”

“No.”

“Then it's worth a try, isn't it?”

“I never liked the ocean,” said Cutangle. “It ought to be paved over. There's dreadful things in it, down in the deep bits. Ghastly sea monsters. Or so they say.”

“Keep baling, my lad, or you'll be able to see if they're right.”

The storm rolled backwards and forwards overhead. It was lost here on the flat river plains; it belonged in the high Ramtops, where they knew how to appreciate a good storm. It grumbled around, looking for even a moderately high hill to throw lightning at.

The rain settled down to the gentle patter of rain that is quite capable of keeping it up for days. A sea fog also rolled in to assist it.

“If we had some oars we could row, if we knew where we were going,” said Cutangle. Granny didn't answer.

He heaved a few more bootfuls of water over the side, and it occurred to him that the gold braiding on his robe would probably never be the same again. It would be nice to think it might matter, one day.

“I don't suppose you do know which way the Hub is, by any chance?” he ventured. “Just making conversation.”

“Look for the mossy side of trees,” said Granny without turning her head.

“Ali, ” said Cutangle, and nodded.

He peered down gloomily at the oily waters, and wondered which particular oily waters they were. Judging by the salty smell they were out in the bay now.

What really terrified him about the sea was that the only thing between him and the horrible things that lived at the bottom of it was water. Of course, he knew that logically the only thing that separated him from, say, the man-eating tigers in the jungles of Klatch was mere distance, but that wasn't the same thing at all. Tigers didn't rise up out of the chilly depths, mouths full of needle teeth ….

He shivered.

“Can't you feel it?” asked Granny. “You can taste it in the air. Magic! It's leaking out from something.”

“It's not actually water soluble,” said Cutangle. He smacked his lips once or twice. There was indeed a tinny taste to the fog, he had to admit, and a faint greasiness to the air.

“You're a wizard,” said Granny, severely. “Can't you call it up or something?”

“The question has never arisen,” said Cutangle. “Wizards never throw their staffs away.”

“It's around here somewhere,” snapped Granny. “Help me look for it, man!”

Cutangle groaned. It had been a busy night, and before he tried any more magic he really needed twelve hours sleep, several good meals, and a quiet afternoon in front of a big fire. He was getting too old, that was the trouble. But he closed his eyes and concentrated.

There was magic around, all right. There are some places where magic naturally accumulates. It builds up around deposits of the transmundane metal octiron, in the wood of certain trees, in isolated lakes, it sleets through the world and those skilled in such things can catch it and store it. There was a store of magic in the area.

“It's potent,” he said. “Very potent.” He raised his hands to his temples.

“It's getting bloody cold,” said Granny. The insistent rain had turned to snow.

There was a sudden change in the world. The boat stopped, not with a jar, but as if the sea had suddenly decided to become solid. Granny looked over the side.

The sea had become solid. The sound of the waves was coming from a long way away and getting further away all the time.

She leaned over the side of the boat and tapped on the water.

“Ice,” she said. The boat was motionless in an ocean of ice. It creaked ominously.

Cutangle nodded slowly.

“It makes sense,” he said. “If they are . . . where we think they are, then it's very cold. As cold as the night between the stars, it is said. So the staff feels it too.”

“Right,” said Granny, and stepped out of the boat. “All we have to do is find the middle of the ice and there's the staff, right?”

“I knew you were going to say that. Can I at least put my boots on?”

They wandered across the frozen waves, with Cutangle stopping occasionally to try and sense the exact location of the staff. His robes were freezing on him. His teeth chattered.

“Aren't you cold?” he said to Granny, whose dress fairly crackled as she walked.

“I'm cold,” she conceded, “I just ain't shivering.”

“We used to have winters like this when I was a lad,” said Cutangle, blowing on his fingers. “It doesn't snow in Ankh, hardly.”

“Really,” said Granny, peering ahead through the freezing fog.

“There was snow on the tops of the mountains all year round, I recall. Oh, you don't get temperatures like you did when I was a boy.”

“At least, until now,” he added, stamping his feet on the ice. It creaked menacingly, reminding him that it was all that lay between him and the bottom of the sea. He stamped again, as softly as possible.

“What mountains were these?” asked Granny.

“Oh, the Ramtops. Up towards the Hub, in fact. Place called Brass Neck.”

Granny's lips moved. “Cutangle, Cutangle,” she said softly. “Any relation to old Acktur Cutangle? Used to live in a big old house under Leaping Mountain, had a lot of sons.”

“My father. How on disc d'you know that?”

“I was raised up there,” said Granny, resisting the temptation merely to smile knowingly. “Next valley. Bad Ass. I remember your mother. Nice woman, kept brown and white chickens, I used to go up there to buy eggs for me mam. That was before I was called to witching, of course.”

“I don't remember you,” said Cutangle. “Of course, it was a long time ago. There was always a lot of children around our house.” He sighed. “I suppose it's possible I pulled your hair once. It was the sort of thing I used to do.”

“Maybe. I remember a fat little boy. Rather unpleasant.”

“That might have been me. I seem to recall a rather bossy girl, but it was a long time ago. A long time ago.”

“I didn't have white hair in those days,” said Granny.

“Everything was a different colour in those days.”

“That's true.”

“It didn't rain so much in the summer time.”

“The sunsets were redder.”

“There were more old people. The world was full of them,” said the wizard.

“Yes, I know. And now it's full of young people. Funny, really. I mean, you'd expect it to be the other way round.”

“They even had a better kind of air. It was easier to breathe,” said Cutangle. They stamped on through the swirling snow, considering the curious ways of time and Nature.

“Ever been home again?” said Granny.

Cutangle shrugged. “When my father died. It's odd, I've never said this to anyone, but-well, there were my brothers, because I am an eighth son of course, and they had children and even grandchildren, and not one of them can hardly write his name. I could have bought the whole village. And they treated me like a king, but- I mean, I've been to places and seen things that would curdle their minds, I've faced down creatures wilder than their nightmares, I know secrets that are known to a very few -”

“You felt left out,” said Granny. “There's nothing strange in that. It happens to all of us. It was our choice.”

“Wizards should never go home,” said Cutangle.

“I don't think they can go home,” agreed Granny. “You can't cross the same river twice, I always say.”

Cutangle gave this some thought.

“I think you're wrong there,” he said. “I must have crossed the same river, oh, thousands of times.”