“What a strange creature,” Twoflower remarked,
“Is it dangerous?”
“Only to people!” shouted Rincewind. He drew his sword and, with a smooth overarm throw, completely failed to hit the troll. The blade plunged on into the heather at the side of the track.
There was the faintest of sounds, like the rattle of old teeth. The sword struck a boulder concealed in the heather -concealed, a watcher might have considered, so artfully that a moment before it had not appeared to be there at all. It sprang up like a leaping salmon and in mid-ricochet plunged deeply into the back of the troll’s grey neck.
The creature grunted, and with one swipe of a claw gouged a wound in the flank of Twoflower’s horse, which screamed and bolted into the trees at the roadside. The troll spun around and made a grab for Rincewind.
Then its sluggish nervous system brought it the message that it was dead. It looked surprised for a moment, and then toppled over and shattered into gravel (trolls being silicaceous lifeforms, their bodies reverted instantly to stone at the moment of death).
“Aaargh,” thought Rincewind as his horse reared in terror. He hung on desperately as it staggered two-legged across the road and then, screaming, turned and galloped into the woods.
The sound of hoofbeats died away, leaving the air to the hum of bees and the occasional rustle of butterfly wings. There was another sound, too, a strange noise for the bright time of noonday.
It sounded like dice.
The long aisles of trees threw Twoflower’s voice from side to side and eventually tossed it back to him, unheeded. He sat down on a rock and tried to think.
Firstly, he was lost. That was vexing, but it did not worry him unduly. The forest looked quite interesting and probably held elves or gnomes, perhaps both. In fact on a couple of occasions he had thought he had seen strange green faces peering down at him from the branches. Twoflower had always wanted to meet an elf. In fact what he really wanted to meet was a dragon, but an elf would do. Or a real goblin.
His Luggage was missing, and that was annoying. It was also starting to rain. He squirmed uncomfortably on the damp stone, and tried to look on the bright side. for example, during its mad dash his plunging horse had burst through some rushes and disturbed a she-bear with her cubs, but had gone on before the bear could react. Then it had suddenly been galloping over the sleeping bodies of a large wolf pack and, again, its mad speed had been such that the furious yelping had been left far behind. Nevertheless, the day was wearing on and perhaps it would be a good idea – Twoflower thought
– not to hang about, in the open. Perhaps there was a…he racked his brains trying to remember what sort of accommodation forests traditionally offered… perhaps there was a ginger bread house or something?
The stone really was uncomfortable. Twoflower looked down and, for the first time, noticed the strange carving.
It looked like a spider. Or was it a squid? Moss and lichens rather blurred the precise details. But they didn’t blur the runes carved below it. Twoflower could read them clearly, and they said:
Traveller the hospitable temple of Bel-Shamharoth lies one thousand paces Hubwards.
Now this was strange, Twoflower realized, because although he could read the message the actual letters were completely unknown to him. Somehow the message was arriving in his brain without the tedious necessity of passing through his eyes.
He stood up and untied his now-riddable horse from a sapling. He wasn’t sure which way the Hub lay, but there seemed to be an old track of sorts leading away between the trees. This Bel-Shamharoth seemed prepared to go out of his way to help stranded travellers. In any case, it was that or the wolves. Twoflower nodded decisively.
It is interesting to note that, several hours later, a couple of wolves who were following Twoflower’s scent arrived in the glade. Their green eyes fell on the strange eight-legged carving -which may indeed have been a spider, or an octopus, or may yet again have been something altogether more strange -and they immediately decided that they weren’t so hungry, at that.
About three miles away a failed wizard was hanging by his hands from a high branch in a beech tree.
This was the end result of five minutes of crowded activity. First, an enraged she-bear had barged through the undergrowth and taken the throat out of his horse with one swipe of her paw. Then, as Rincewind had fled the carnage, he had run into a glade in which a number of irate wolves were milling about. His instructors at Unseen University, who had despaired of Rincewind’s inability to master levitation, would have then been amazed at the speed with which he reached and climbed the nearest tree, without apparently touching it.
Now there was just the matter of the snake.
It was large and green, and wound itself along the branch with reptilian patience. Rincewind wondered if it was poisonous, then chided himself for asking such a silly question. Of course it would be poisonous.
“What are you grinning for?” he asked the figure on the next branch.
I CAN’T HELP IT, said Death. NOW WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO LET GO? I CAN’T HANG AROUND ALL DAY.
“I can,” said Rincewind defiantly.
The wolves clustered around the base of the tree looked up with interest at their next meal talking to himself.
IT WON’T HURT, said Death. If words had weight, a single sentence from Death would have anchored a ship.
Rincewind’s arms screamed their agony at him. He scowled at the vulture-like, slightly transparent figure.
“Won’t hurt?” he said. “Being torn apart by wolves won’t hurt?”
He noticed another branch crossing his dangerously narrowing one a few feet away. If he could just reach it…
He swung himself forward, one hand outstretched. The branch, already bending, did not break. It simply made a wet little sound and twisted. Rincewind found that he was now hanging on to the end of a tongue of bark and fibre, lengthening as it peeled away from the tree. He looked down, and with a sort of fatal satisfaction realized that he would land right on the biggest wolf.
Now he was moving slowly as the bark peeled back in a longer and longer strip. The snake watched him thoughtfully.
But the growing length of bark held. Rincewind began to congratulate himself until, looking up, he saw what he had hitherto not noticed. There was the largest hornets’ nest he had ever seen, hanging right in his path.
He shut his eyes tightly.
Why the troll? he asked himself. Everything else is just my usual luck, but why the troll? What the hell is going on?
Click. It may have been a twig snapping, except that the sound appeared to be inside Rincewind’s head. Click, click. And a breeze that failed to set a single leaf atremble.
The hornets’ nest was ripped from the branch as the strip passed by. It shot past the wizard’s head and he watched it grow smaller as
it plummeted towards the circle of upturned muzzles.
The circle suddenly closed.
The circle suddenly expanded.
The concerted yelp of pain as the pack fought to escape the furious cloud echoed among the trees. Rincewind grinned inanely.
Rincewind’s elbow nudged something. It was the tree trunk. The strip had carried him right to the end of the branch. But there were no other branches. The smooth bark beside him offered no handholds. It offered hands, though. Two were even now thrusting through the mossy bark beside him; slim hands, green as young leaves. Then a shapely arm followed, and then the hamadryad leaned right out and grasped the astonished wizard firmly and, with that vegetable strength that can send roots questing into rock, drew him into the tree. The solid bark parted like a mist, closed like a clam.
Death watched impassively.
He glanced at the cloud of mayflies that were dancing their joyful zigzags near His skull. He snapped His fingers. The insects fell out of the air. But, somehow, it wasn’t quite the same.
Blind Io pushed his stack of chips across the table, glowered through such of his eyes that were currently in the room, and strode out. A few demigods tittered. At least Offler had taken the loss of a perfectly good troll with precise, if somewhat reptilian, grace.
The Lady’s last opponent shifted his seat until he faced her across the board.
“Lord,” she said, politely.
“Lady,” he acknowledged. Their eyes met.
He was a taciturn god. It was said that he had arrived in the Discworld after some terrible and mysterious incident in another Eventuality. It is of course the privilege of gods to control their apparent outward form, even to other gods; the Fate of the Discworld was currently a kindly man in late middle age, greying hair brushed neatly around features that a maiden would confidently proffer a glass of small beer to, should they appear at her back door. It was a face a kindly youth would gladly help over a stile. Except for his eyes, of course. No deity can disguise the manner and nature of his eyes. The nature of the two eyes of the Fate of the Discworld was this: that while at a mere glance they were simply dark, a closer look would reveal – too late! -that they were but holes opening on to a blackness so remote, so deep that the watcher would feel himself inexorably drawn into the twin pools of infinite night and their terrible, wheeling stars…
The lady coughed politely, and laid twenty-one white chips on the table. Then from her robe she took another chip, silvery and translucent and twice the size of the others. The soul of a true Hero always finds a better rate of exchange, and is valued highly by the gods.
Fate raised an eyebrow.
“And no cheating, Lady.” he said.
“But who could cheat Fate?” she asked. He shrugged.
“No-one. Yet everyone tries.”
“And yet, again, I believe I felt you giving me a little assistance against the others?”
“But of course. So that the endgame could be the sweeter, lady. And now…”
He reached into his gaming box and brought forth a piece, setting it down on the board with a satisfied air. The watching deities gave a collective sigh. Even the Lady was momentarily taken aback. it was certainly ugly. The carving was uncertain, as if the craftsman’s hands were shaking in horror of the thing taking shape under his reluctant fingers. It seemed to be all suckers and tentacles. And mandibles, the lady observed. And one great eye.
“I thought such as He died out at the beginnings of Time,” she said.
“Mayhap our necrotic friend was loathe even to go near this one,” laughed Fate. He was enjoying himself.
“It should never have been spawned.”
“Nevertheless,” said Fate gnomically. He scooped the dice into their unusual box, and then glanced up at her.
“Unless,” he added, “you wish to resign…?”
She shook her head.
“Play,” she said.
“You can match my stake?”
Rincewind knew what was inside trees: wood, sap, possibly squirrels. Not a palace.
Still-the cushions underneath him were definitely softer than wood, the wine in the wooden cup beside him was much tastier than sap, and there could be absolutely no comparison between a squirrel and the girl sitting before him, clasping her knees and watching him thoughtfully, unless mention was made of certain hints of furriness.
The room was high, wide and lit with a soft yellow light which came from no particular source that Rincewind could identify. Through gnarled and knotted archways he could see other rooms, and what looked like a very large winding staircase. And it had looked a perfectly normal tree from the outside, too.