The Last Hero Page 3

"Have you been to the Hub?"

"Er ... yes?"

"Can you describe the terrain?"

"Er ..."

"What did the scenery look like?" Lord Vetinari added helpfully. "Er ... blurred, sir. I was being chased by some people."

"Indeed? And why was this?" Rincewind looked shocked. "Oh. I never stop to find out why people are chasing me, sir. I never look behind, either. That'd be rather silly, sir." Lord Vetinari pinched the bridge of his nose, "Just tell me what you know about Cohen, please," he said wearily. "Him? He's just a hero who never died, sir. A leathery old man. Not very bright, really, but he's got so much cunning and guile you'd never know it."

"Are you a friend of his?"

"Well, we've met a couple of times and he didn't kill me," said Rincewind. "That probably counts as a "yes"."

"And what about the old men who're with him?"

"Oh, they're not old men ... well, yes, they are old men ... but, well... they're his Silver Horde, sir."

"Those are the Silver Horde? All of it?"

"Yes, sir," said Rincewind. "But I thought the Silver Horde conquered the entire Agatean Empire!"

"Yes, sir. That was them." Rincewind shook his head. "I know it's hard to believe, sir. But you haven't seen them fight. They're experienced. And the thing is ... the big thing about Cohen is ... he's contagious."

"You mean he's a plague carrier?"

"It's like a mental illness, sir. Or magic. He's as crazy as a stoat, but... once they've been around him for a while, people start seeing the world the way he does. All big and simple. And they want to be part of it." Lord Vetinari looked at his fingernails. "But I understood that those men had settled down and were immensely rich and powerful," he said. "That's what heroes want, isn't it? To crush the thrones of the world beneath their sandalled feet, as the poet puts it?"

"Yes. sir." :So what's this? One last throw of the dice? Why?""

"I can't understand it, sir. I mean ... they had it all."

"Clearly," said the Patrician. "But everything wasn't enough, was it?" There was argument in the anteroom beyond the Patrician's Oblong Office. Every few minutes a clerk slipped in through a side door and laid another pile of papers on the desk.

Lord Vetinari stared at them. Possibly, he felt, the thing to do would be to wait until the pile of international advice and demands grew as tall as Cori Celesti, and simply climb to the top of it. Zip, zing and can-do, he thought. So, as a man full of get up and go must do, Lord Vetinari got up and went. He unlocked a secret door in the panelling and a moment later was gliding silently through the hidden corridors of his palace. The dungeons of the palace held a number of felons imprisoned "at his lordship's pleasure", and since Lord Vetinari was seldom very pleased they were generally in for the long haul. His destination now, though, was the strangest prisoner of all, who lived in the attic. Leonard of Quirm had never committed a crime. He regarded his fellow Man with benign interest. He was an artist and he was also the cleverest man alive, if you used the word "clever" in a specialised and technical sense. But Lord Vetinari felt that the world was not yet ready for a man who designed unthinkable weapons of war as a happy hobby. The man was, in his heart and soul, and in everything he did, an artist. Currently, Leonard was painting a picture of a lady, from a series of sketches he had pinned up by his easel. "Ah, my lord," he said, glancing up. "And what is the problem?"

"Is there a problem?" said Lord Vetinari. "There generally is, my lord, when you come to see me."

"Very well," said Lord Vetinari. "I wish to get several people to the centre of the world as soon as possible."

"Ah, yes," said Leonard. "There is much treacherous terrain between here and there. Do you think I have the smile right? I've never been very good at smiles."

"I said-"

"Do you wish them to arrive alive?"

"What? Oh ... yes. Of course. And fast." Leonard painted on, in silence. Lord Vetinari knew better than to interrupt. "And do you wish them to return?" said the artist, after a while. "You know, perhaps I should show the teeth. I believe I understand teeth."

"Returning them would be a pleasant bonus, yes."

"This is a vital journey?"

"If it is not successful, the world will end."

"Ah. Quite vital, then." Leonard laid down his brush and stood back, looking critically at his picture. "I shall require the use of several sailing ships and a large barge," he said, after a while. "And I will make a list of other materials for you."

"A sea voyage?"

"To begin with, my lord."

"Are you sure you don't want farther time to think?" said Lord Vetinari. "Oh, to sort out the fine detail, yes. But I believe I already have the essential idea." Vetinari looked up at the ceiling of the workroom and the armada of paper shapes and bat-winged devices and other aerial extravaganzas that hung there, turning gently in the breeze. "This doesn't involve some kind of flying machine, does it?" he said suspiciously. "Urn ... why do you ask?"

"Because the destination is a very high place, Leonard, and your flying machines have an inevitable downwards component."

"Yes. my lord. But I believe that sufficient down eventually becomes up, my lord."

"Ah. Is this philosophy?"

"Practical philosophy, my lord"

"Nevertheless, I find myself amazed, Leonard, that you appear to have come up with a solution just as soon as I presented the problem ..."

Leonard of Quirm cleaned his brush. "I always say, my lord, that a problem correctly posed contains its own solution. But it is true to say that I have given some thought to issues of this nature. I do, as you know, experiment with devices ... which of course, obedient to your views on this matter, I subsequently dismantle because there are, indeed, evil men in the world who might stumble upon them and pervert their use. You were kind enough to give me a room with unlimited views of the sky, and I ... notice things. Oh ... I shall require several dozen swamp dragons, too. No, that should be ... more than a hundred, I think."

"Ah, you intend to build a ship that can be drawn into the sky by dragons?" said Lord Vetinari, mildly relieved. "I recall an old story about a ship that was pulled by swans and flew all the way to-"

"Swans, I fear, would not work. But your surmise is broadly correct, my lord. Well done. Two hundred dragons, I suggest, to be on the safe side."

"That at least is not a difficulty. They are becoming rather a pest."

"And the help of, oh. sixty apprentices and journeymen from the Guild of Cunning Artificers. Perhaps there should he a hundred. They will need to work round the clock."

"Apprentices? But I can see to it that the finest craftsmen-" Leonard held up a hand. "Not craftsmen, my lord." he said. "I have no use for people who have learned the limits of the possible." The Horde found Cohen sitting on an ancient burial mound a little way from the camp. There were a lot of them in this area. The members of the Horde had seen them before, sometimes, on their various travels across the world. Here and there an ancient stone would poke through the snow, carved in a language none of them recognised. They were very old. None of the Horde had ever considered cutting into a mound to see what treasures might lie within. Partly this was because they had a word for people who used shovels, and that word was "slave". But mainly it was because, despite their calling, they had a keen moral Code, even if it wasn't the sort adopted by nearly everyone else, and this Code led them to have a word for anyone who disturbed a burial mound. That word was "die!". The Horde, each member a veteran of a thousand hopeless charges, nevertheless advanced cautiously towards Cohen, who was sitting cross- legged in the snow. His sword was thrust deep into a drift. He had a distant, worrying expression. "Coming to have some dinner, old friend?" said Caleb. "It's walrus," said Boy Willie. "Again." Cohen grunted. "I havfen't finiffed," he said, indistinctly. "Finished what, old friend?"

"Rememb'rin'," said Cohen. "Remembering who?"

"The hero who waff buried here, all right?"

"Who was he?"


"What were his people?"

"Fearch me," said Cohen. "Did he do any mighty deeds?"

"Couldn't fay."

"Then why-?"

"Fomeone"f got to remember the poor bugger!"

"You don't know anything about him!"

"I can ftill remember him!" The rest of the Horde exchanged glances. This was going to be a difficult adventure. It was a good job that it was to be the last.

"You ought to come and have a word with that bard we captured." said Caleb. "He's getting on my nerves. He don't seem to understand what he's about."

"He'fjuft got to write the faga afterwardf." said Cohen flatly and damply. A thought appeared to strike him. He started to pat various parts of his clothing, which, given the amount of clothing, didn't take long. "Yeah, well, this isn't your basic heroic saga kind of bard, y'see," said Caleb, as his leader continued the search. "I told you he wasn't the right sort when we grabbed him. He's more the kind of bard you want if you need some ditty being sung to a girl. We're talking flowers and spring here, boss."

"Ah, got 'em." said Cohen. From a bag on his belt he produced a set of dentures, carved from the diamond teeth of trolls. He inserted them in his mouth, and gnashed them a few times. "That's better. What were you saying?"

"He's not a proper bard, boss." Cohen shrugged. "He'll just have to learn fast, then. He's got to be better'n the ones back in the Empire. They don't have a clue about poems longer'n seventeen syllables. At least this one's from Ankh-Morpork. He must've heard about sagas."

"I said we should've stopped off at Whale Bay." said Truckle. "Icy wastes, freezing nights ... good saga country."

"Yeah, if you like blubber." Cohen drew his sword from the snowdrift. "I reckon I'd better go and take the lad's mind off of flowers, then."

"It appears that things revolve around the Disc," said Leonard. "This is certainly the case with the sun and the moon. And also, if you recall... the Maria Pesto?"

"The ship they said went right under the Disc?" said Archchancellor Ridcully. "Quite. Known to be blown over the Rim near the Bay of Mante during a dreadful storm, and seen by fishermen rising above the Rim near TinLing some days later, where it crashed down upon a reef. There was only one survivor, whose dying words were ... rather strange."

"I remember," said Ridcully. "He said, "My God, it's full of elephants!""

"It is my view that with sufficient thrust and a lateral component a craft sent off the edge of the world would be swung underneath by the massive attraction and rise on the far side." said Leonard, "probably to a sufficient height to allow it to glide down to anywhere on the surface." The wizards stared at the blackboard. Then, as one wizard, they turned to Ponder Stibbons, who was scribbling in his notebook. "What was that about. Ponder?" Ponder stared at his notes. Then he stared at Leonard. Then he stared at Ridcully. "Er... yes. Possibly. Er ... if you fall over the edge fast enough, the ... world pulls you back ... and you go on falling but it's all round the world."

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