Y Coch a'r y Gwyn – Wægn îsig ac dôð read 4
The Red and the White
As always, v0.2, revisions and additions
A longer tale based on a single paragraph written for The Ankh-Morpork Times – News of The Disc on Facebook. I wrote a one paragraph response to a posting, recognised its ultimate source (primal British myth shared by Celt, Saxon and Norman alike), and thought – why stop here?
Stalled because I know what I want to say and I've got a few episodes sketched out – just can't get the scenes in the right order nor can I work out the linking bits between them.
I think I've got it right, now… ploughing on while "Strandpiel 2" is in preparation….
Uther Penferret, King of Lancre, scowled at Sir Percifal, Knight Commander of the Border Marches of Buried Shrew. (1)
The man who until very recently had merely been Percy Grobbins, mainly farmer and part-time warrior, shuffled his feet nervously.
"Am I to understand that at this present moment in time, there is no watch whatsoever going on along the border marches with Llamedos?" the king asked, with studied patient calm.
Sir Percifal cleared his throat, nervously.
"Errr… don't need one right now, your Majesty." he replied.
"Explain?" the King asked. Kings could dispense with un-necessary parts of a sentence.
"'Sides, we all got other things to do. Bringin' in the harvest, you see. And lots of the lads has taken the spear points off the hafts, see, an' put the pitchfork head back on. Take a while to swap them back over, if we has to go to war again."
Uther Penferret glared at his faithful knight.
"And while you are bringing in the harvest." He said, slowly. "What do you think the Llamedosians will be doing?"
Sir Percifal brightened up.
"Oh, that's easy, sire." he said. "They're bringin' in their harvest too. On account of it bein' harvest time, sir. Lord Llew of the Black Hand sent a message over. Askin' if we din't mind, and he hopes as how there'd be no fightin' while we're all doin' what's necessary at this time of year, sire."
There was another long silence. Sir Percifal filled it.
"I've known Lew Williams a long time, sir. On account of our bein' neighbours, over the Dyke. He's okay. Straight as an arrow, for a Llamedosian. Decent bloke."
King Uther Penferret sighed a long exasperated sigh.
"Is that everythin' sir?" Sir Percifal asked, hopefully. "Only I've got to get back and pitch in on Top Field. Not enough hours in the day, this time of year."
The king nodded dismissal, and turned to one of his master artisans.
Bert Plasterer, the Lancre village carpenter and furniture-maker, sighed deeply. This was going to be a difficult one. Having to explain to a customer why the thing they'd set their heart on simply wasn't possible, well, that was always tricky. Having to explain it to the King that what he wanted was neither practical nor feasible… well, he'd far rather somebody else did it.
He took a deep breath.
"I get that Her Majesty really wants this, guv… sire." he said. He paused, working up to it.
"I'm sure Queen Crossgrain…"
"Ygraine." The King corrected him.
"Her Majesty. She had the education what is right and proper to one of her social standing, like. And that she did Maths. So she'll understand. Can I explain? It's just that… this Round Table thing what she wants. A place where a hundred and fifty Knights and their King can sit in harmony and fellowship and none is elevated above the other, sort of thing."
He nodded to the prototype Round Table, that just managed to sit eight people. It was painted in variegated eighths, giving it the look of a large dartboard viewed from above, with a cruet set on a salver occupying the bullseye position in the dead centre. The Queen had liked it but said it was too small. The King's nominated Knights had to occupy it in shifts.
"Take a look at it, Sire." Bert invited him. A round table. A perfect circle, right? Sits eight people. But it's still a bit over nine foot across."
"Yes, and?" the King said.
"Well, there's all that space in the middle, sire. You puts the salt and pepper and vinegar in the middle. On a normal table, everyone can reach and get it? But you're sitting here, your kingness. You wants some salt on your chips. You're trying to reach best part of five feet to get it. Everybody has to reach best part of five foot to get it."
King Uther Penferret nodded, gloomily. He'd just had plain chips for tea. He simply hadn't been able to reach the bloody salt. Nobody had been able to reach the bloody salt. Or the vinegar. It had stood in the middle, tantalising them.
"And that's not the end of it, sire. Everyone at the table needs about three and a half foot of space, right? Else they're clashing elbows. Now it's all to do with pie, as a man of education will know."
"Oh yes. Pie." the King agreed. Pickles to go with pie also went on that unreachable condiments salver.
"The thing with pie, sir." Bert Plasterer went on, doggedly, "is that the bigger the circle, the further it is to the middle. You wants to scale up to a table sitting twenty."
Bert did the reversed-breath-through-the-teeth thing.
"Lots of oak, sire. Weighs heavy. Isn't cheap. And if you wants twenty people there who each have three-and-a-half foot of rim, so as to have the elbow room. Proportions go up. That's seventy foot of rim on the outside. That means, when you does the maths, the table's now twenty-three foot across. And the salt and pepper and the vinegar are still dead centre."
The King winced. Bert Plasterer pressed his advantage.
"And the table Her Majesty wants, sitting a hundred and fifty. That's a five hundred and twenty-five foot rim around the edge. You're askin' for a table a hundred and sixty-odd foot across."
"With the cruet still in the middle." King Uther said, glumly.
"Yes, sire. If Sir Bedivere was directly opposite from you, you'd have to shout. What with his hearing problem. And another thing, sire. You'd need a bloody big dining room, pardon my Latatian. And it'd be ninety percent table."
King Uther became aware of the guard running in.
"And I tell you, that'd weigh twelve tons. So you'd need a reinforced floor too…"
"Thank you, Mr Plasterer." Uther said, grateful of the emergency requiring his presence. He listened to the flustered guard gabble "Them witches have got in, and Her Majesty is going spare – err, she is displeased, sire."
Uther sighed a deep, resigned, sigh.
"Her Majesty is displeased." he said, flatly. His shoulders slumped. "With the witches. I consider that I should be present."
He hunched his shoulders, his chin drooping, then realised he was a King, so he'd better bloody well present himself as one. He drew himself together, squared himself, and moved, in a regal-but-reluctant way, to the door.
"Errr…." the sergeant said, aware of the growing commotion behind him that appeared to be drawing nearer and getting louder. It had high-pitched overtones of a very annoyed Queen who was outraged at having been annoyed by mere commoners. Gloomily, he wondered if he was a few minutes away from reduction back to the ranks.
The three Witches stood at the edge of the large deep pit that up until recently had been the foundation of what was intended to be the new castle. It was still lined with neatly squared-off stone blocks and here and there were the stubs and broken teeth of what had been internal floors and vaults. A stone staircase led to nowhere, ending in a final teetering wobbly step over a sea of broken rubble, blocks and slabs. A single vaulted pillar stood proud among the rubble, maybe seventy feet below the edge. The beginnings of a castle wall, maybe waist height, ran along the perimeter of the wide deep squared-off pit.
It had the look of a place where trolls had been playing jenga, and had abruptly abandoned the game.
"It's all a bit of a mess, ain't it?" Gerontia Ogg said, thoughtfully. "Wonder if our Nefyl could salvage some of that. You know, site clearance. Rebuild me back wall in stone. Loads better nor wattle and daub."
"It'd take a bit of clearin' up." Nimue Weatherwax remarked, as she looked down, critically, at the mess. "But I reckon Queenie can have her castle yet, if that's what she wants. Once we sorts out the other thing."
"Is it me, or does it smellll a bit?" Morgana said, wrinkling her nose. "Something… well, smelllly."
"It's a bit rank." Gerontia agreed. "Earthy. Smelt that smell before. Down the Dwarf mine at Copperhead…"
The commotion was getting nearer.
"Guards! Why are you not arresting those women?"
"Nim, are you thinkin'what I'm thinkin'?"
"Wouldn't know, as I'm not you. But reckon I know what this is. And so do you."
They looked down into the pit together. They noted that the inner walls, squared off stone blocks lining the inside and marking where the sub-floors of the dungeon levels would go, were largely intact and untouched. Dwarfs built well and knew what was needed. But down there, and over there, not quite hidden by the chaotic rubble, were large irregular holes, punched through the main walls… like the gateways to dark deep tunnels under the castle mount…
What made them, Morgana wondered. What did the builders disturb?
She shuddered. Then she half-turned to consider a more immediate problem.
She was startlingly blonde, perhaps in her very early twenties. She was slightly red in the face, with the tall white conical hat, trailing a scarf, slightly lopsided on her head. She had gathered up her skirts to move faster, and Morgana noted the very pretty, very expensive, white shoes, now slightly spattered with earth and with the stain of green grass. Morgana felt a moment's envy; she would kill for pretty expensive shoes like that. She'd heard the new Queen had a wardrobe full of them. And now she was getting grass stains on them…
"You are banned from this place!" the woman said, trying to sound regal. "Did I not order that the Witches are banned from my castle?"
The effect was spoilt by her voice being nasal, higher pitched, a little bit reedy and a little bit out of breath.
Nimue and Gerontia turned to regard her. Both folded their arms.
"What's that word? Long word, sounds a bit like like pet?" Gerontia said.
"Petulant?" she said, tentatively.
"Yep, that's the coney." Gerontia said.
The Queen stamped her foot. It fitted the definition, somehow.
"I clearly gave orders you do not come into my castle!" she said.
Nimue folded her arms tighter and stared, expressionlessly, at the Queen.
"Not only do you trespass here, you ignore me as if I don't matter, and you come up here to gloat! I want a modern castle! I want a new kingdom! I want new ideas! I want a court magician, not old peasant women with silly superstitions! I want you begone!"
"Begone? Shan't. Won't." Nimue said. "Witches goes where they likes."
"Besides." Gerontia said. "Less of the old. Ain't none of us over thirty. Well. Not much over thirty. And that ain't old."
"Age old thing, is that." Nimue said, flatly. "Witches goes where they want. Mess with that, you're messin' with Lancre. And, 'sides. Where a witch wants to go is pretty oftentimes where she is needed. And, my girl, I gets the feelin' right now that we are needed here."
"She's right, your Queenliness." Gerontia said. "You got a big problem to sort out down this hole. Or you ain't got no castle."
"Your Queenliness?" she exploded. "Girl? You peasants will address me as Your Majesty!"
"She'll be stampin' her foot next," Gerontia observed. She nodded to a circle of worried-looking castle guards who were standing well back.
"Alright, Brian? The little problem sortin' itself out, after I done you the poultice? Kevin, that thing with the kiddies getting' better, poor little mites, after I helped Hilda with the teethin? Could do you some more of the liniment to rub on their gums, when I gets back to the cottage, you must be runnin' out by now?"
She smiled benevolently at the guards, making it clear she knew them all by name. And the expressions on their faces said that they knew she knew them all by name.
Morgana couldn't help herself. Something vitally important had been nagging at her like a persistent mouth ulcer. She had to say it.
"I know something to hellp get those grass stains out of your shoes." she said. "And out of the hem of that white dress. Wet grass allways stains."
The queen looked back at her, a puzzled expression on her face.
Nimue scowled at the Queen.
"Majestic is as majestic does." she said. "And I'm not seein' majestic right now. Listen to me, Queen Migraine…"
"That's Queen YGRAINE!" the Queen hissed back, furiously. Nimue ploughed on.
"What I am seein' in front of me is…"
"Ladies? Errr… my love? Why don't we just talk about this…"
King Uther raced forward, red in the face and slightly breathless. He looked like a King who has just realised there are limits to absolute monarchy. Four of them were standing in front of him right now.
Just as Uther realised he was caught between the hard place of his Queen and three very solid rocky outcrops called witches, the ground under his feet shook.
He tried to shake off the steadying hand of his Court Wizard.
"It's happening, sire." Merddyn said. "We are standing right on top of it. "The earthquake. The ground tremor that has thrown down your castle five times… we must get to safety!"
The ground shook again, harder, for longer, and louder. As the Queen wobbled, Morgana instinctively grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into the shelter of a length of shattered wall. The two wobbled and stumbled into a semi-kneeling position behind it, looking down into the depths of the open dungeons.
"Ere! Somethin''s happenin'!" Gerontia called. "Bring Kingy over here, would you, Nim? And the Wizard?"
Nimue nodded, and grabbed an elbow in each hand as the world shook again. She dragged them towards the brink and got a glimpse of the Somethin'.
"You know, Mistress Weatherwax, this is pretty much lése-majèsté?" the King complained, somewhat ineffectually.
"Just lay down flat, Uther?" Nimue said. "You too, wizard. Best not be on your feet when the earth's shakin' like this. Ain't nothing can fall on us from above."
The earth shook again. The six laid down side-by-side, looking over the rim into the deep hole. Uther thought something was moving down at the bottom. He just couldn't see clearly what it was.
"Is this wise, Mistress Weatherwax?" he asked, as regally as he could manage.
Next to him, Nimue made a horizontal shrug.
"Granted, it's a long drop onto a heap of rubble." she said. "But we're at the top of a Dwarf-built retainin' wall that's still standin' after five of these earth-quake thingies. To my way of thinkin', we're in the safest place. Dwarfs build well."
She paused, and glanced down the line to Morgana and the Queen. Gerontia had insinuated herself on the Queen's other side.
"They'll struggle to get the grass stains out of that white dress." Nimue remarked. "White damask is a bugger for grass stainin'. Attracts it. Anyway, Kingy. See those two holes down there, in opposite walls? Watch 'em."
The king watched. Then his soul sang in fear at the things that had emerged from the holes. At least some of the castle population was watching from the stubby torn-down walls. Many more had turned and were running. But more rumbling tremors were making people stay put.
One huge head, a sort of dirty grey-beige-white colour, turned upwards, regarded the human watchers with scant disinterest, and then turned its attention back to what it was doing. The long almost equine face of the other animal, this one a sort of deep russetty brick-red colour, gave the humans no attention at all. And both the long scaly bodies, legless and limbless, continued to entwine, sending tremors throughout the castle mount.
"Dragons…" the King said, trying not to whimper. "Bloody dragons."
"Each ninety to a hundred feet long." Merddyn the wizard said, in an awed voice. "One white, one red. Majesty, there is the age-old prophecy. Of the king, who vowed to build the greatest castle in the Turnwise lands. But each night, the building of his castle was thrown down by great shaking violence. Then one day a wise Wizard arrived who ordered men to dig deeper. And they beheld two dragons, one red, one white, engaged in unceasing fight, causing the earth to shake with its violence…"
"An age-old prophecy what you made up just now, on the spur of the moment?" Nimue called. The wizard ignored her, and ploughed on.
"And he interpreted the two dragons fighting as a metaphor…"
"They aintent dragons." Nimue said, flatly. "I knows what they are, now."
"A metaphor of the struggle between Llamedos, represented by the red dragon, and Lancre, personified by the white…"
"Yes, but, and this is the crucial thing, what if one of them takes it into its head to look up, see us, and breathe fire?" the King demanded. "That's not a bloody metaphor, man, that's instant fiery death!"
"They aintent dragons." Nimue repeated. "Look like 'em, I'll agree. But look closely. No legs. No wings, neither. Them's rockworms. Live deep down. Eat rock. They ain't interested in us. Barely know we're here. They don't breathe fire, neither."
" The struggle of the two dragons tells us that nothing of lasting worth or value may be built in Lancre or Llamedos until they cease fighting…."
Gerontia Ogg laughed.
"What do they teach you in Wizard school?" she asked. "Get out much, do you? I tell you, mister, them two rockworms ain't actually fighting!"
There was a long pause. The ground shook again.
"It certainly looks like it…" King Uther said, doubtfully.
They watched the two massive creatures entwining and occasionally taking little bites at each other. The building rubble grated and cracked and crunched around them and the earth shook. Six people, lying flat at the rim of the hole in the ground and looking down over the edge, a king, a queen, a wizard and three witches, united in a sort of precarious but democratic risk of death, watched on.
Gerontia Ogg broke the silence.
"They're doin' somethin' else beginnin' with eff." she said. "Definitely not fighting. More like f-"
"Gerontia…" Nimue warned. She turned to the king.
"One of them courtship rituals, I'm guessin'." she said. "Long slow creatures, live for centuries deep underground, take their time selectin' a mate. Accordin' to this Dwarf I was talkin' to, the only time they comes near the surface is to mate."
The six watched in near silence until it appeared something of a conclusion had been reached by the rock-worms.
"About now is when I'd be lighting me pipe." Gerontia remarked. "Wonder when she lays her eggs, if the babbies is goin' to come out pink?"
"She's not going to lay them here, is she?" Uther asked, anxiously. "In my castle dungeon?"
"Then we'll never get rid of them!" the Queen wailed. "I'll never get my castle now!"
Morgana instinctively put an arm around her. The Queen responded.
"Give me a moment." Nimue said. "Gerontia, keep an eye out."
The Wizard and the king started, as Nimue's body slumped forward, seemingly lifelessly.
"She's not… dead, is she?" Merddyn asked.
"Nah, Mister Wizard. Just Borrowing. Watch."
They watched. One of the semi-comatose monsters in the pit, the white one, raised its head and looked up at them.
King Uther Penferret took a deep breath.
"Mrs Ogg. Did that thing wink at me?" he asked.
"No, your kingship. Nim winked at you. She does have a sense of humour in there, deep down."
They watched the two rock worms separate, then make their way to their respective cave entrances. The observers watched them go, the massive long bodies and finally the tapering tails slithering out of sight.
And Nimue Weatherwax blinked her way back to her own body.
"It's bloody bright up here." she remarked, to nobody in particular.
"Nim? It's dusk. Daylight's fadin' like a bugger!" Gerontia said.
She took the piece of broken limestone, gently but firmly, from Nimue's right hand. She had been raising it to her mouth.
"You don't want to eat that, Nim, you're human. Remember?"
There was a long pause.
"Thank you." Nimue said. "Uther, they won't be back. Fixed their heads. You can get those bloody Dwarfs back now. Start building again. Reckon it'll stay up, this time."
The king thanked her fulsomely and excused himself to go and speak to people.
Satisfied, Nimue looked around.
"And what's he bloody up to…"
Myrddin the wizard had gathered a crowd of Lancrastrians and was telling them the story of the fighting dragons under the castle mount, and how the metaphor of the Red and the White was symbolic of the struggle between Lancre and Llamedos…
"If he DARES say he was the one who sorted this out, and drew them off…."
"Some other business over here, Nim." Gerontia said, tugging her arm.
They looked over to where Morgana was sitting with the Queen. It looked as if Talking had been happening.
"Quick word, Queen Eyestrain." Gerontia said.
"That's Ygraine." the queen said, with less force and more weariness.
Gerontia sat down on her other side, exuding friendly affability. Nimue, who generally didn't do friendly or affable, stood back, arms folded against the world.
"You're up here, prime target for dragons." she said. "Two enormous buggers, look like dragons, emerge from the very pits of the earth. I'd have thought your faithful ansum knight, Lance Pegley, would have bin in there with his long lance, defending you? Leapin' in there, shoutin' "Never fear! I will protect you, my Queen!" Instead, he's the first to bugger off. Nowhere to be seen."
The Queen nodded, glumly.
"Shame, since you give him somethin' frilly to hang off the end of his lance." Gerontia said, cheerfully. "A token of your favours, like."
"Chivalry demands it." Ygraine said. "The code of courtly love."
Gerontia patted her shoulder in a "they're all bastards, love" sort of way. Then her smile faded.
"Only. Usually, the frilly somethin' you gives a knight to hang off the end of his lance is your hanky. Or a scarf."
Ygraine reddened slightly.
"Not exactly subtle. Or discreet." Gerontia remarked. "And I bet it's chilly in winter. But anyway."
And Gerontia Ogg stopped smiling. She scrutinised the Queen carefully. She nodded to Morgana, who had just mouthed something to her and held up two fingers.
"I'm just bettin'. I knows you don't want witches around now. But in seven months time, at latest, you will be screaming for a Witch. I'm predictin' that as an absolute dead cert. And we knows what needs to be done. And it's be a shame if we can't come up the Castle 'cos were barred from entering, ain't that right, Morgana?"
Morgana grinned. Queen Ygraine let her shoulders slump.
"Maybe I was being hasty." she admitted. "I'm sorry. You're welcome to visit. I was wrong to bar you."
Incredibly, Nimue bowed to her.
Now admittin' you were wrong and apologisin'. That was majesty." she said. "Your majesty."
"An' Uther's going to be dead chuffed to know he's got an heir on the way." Gerontia said. "His first child."
Queen Ygraine's face was suddenly a mask of relief and possibly gratitude.
"Well, that's all sorted out then." Gerontia said. She stood up.
Morgana squeezed Ygraine's hand.
"I know things that work wonders for grass stains on white." she said. "It's a sort of magic."
"Yeah, 'specially grass stains on the back of a white frock." Gerontia agreed.
She grinned at the Queen, who reddened.
"Where's Nim gone? Oh, no…"
Merddyn the Court Wizard was declaiming, at length, to a group of Lancre citizens who had cautiously come up towards the castle mount, drawn by the cessation in the earth tremors, pulled by curiosity, wanting to find out what had happened.
They looked as if they were regretting it and were now searching for polite reasons to get away, but were stuck in the company of a man who knew too many long words and was not afraid to use them.
"…on one level, the subterranean quaking was caused by two mighty animals, rarely seen near the surface, of the scientific genus Anguis Lapsussubterrae Monumentalis, rising near to the surface for reasons of their own."
"you're makin' this up as you go along, aren't you?" Nimue said, flatly.
Merddyn paid her no attention. He continued.
"With my great scientifick knowledge, I was able to ascertain that on this surface level of meaning, their business at the surface only incidentally concerned us and we were of no interest to them. Thus I was able to reassure those who watched with me that we were in no peril, and to so advise Their Majesties as well as to calm the unschooled peasant terrors of the ladies who were also present…"
Several of the village folk now began casting anxious looks at Nimue Weatherwax, who glowered.
"Nim…" Gerontia Ogg said, running down the slope of the castle mount towards her. "Don't do anythin' he's going to regret…"
"Even in the midst of this, I was able to form speculations as to the symbolic nature of the visitation, and the portent this holds for the future of the Kingdom of Lancre, concerning the age-old struggle of two great and mighty dragons, earth-serpents dwelling beneath the lands of Lancre and Llamedos, called into being as avatars of our nations…"
"They was rockworms." Nimue Weatherwax said, flatly and loudly. "Just rockworms. Big old buggers, admittedly, but just rockworms. That's all there was to it."
Merddyn turned to her.
"Ah, dear lady." he said, acknowledging her at last. "I trust you were not unduly frightened? The way you and the other ladies mastered your fear was truly remarkable…"
Gerontia took a deep breath and stood back. The way Nim was standing… the expression on her face, the sort that could create lemon curd out of nowhere..
"Can't be having with this." Nimue Weatherwax said. She raised a hand.
And suddenly the wizard was silent. His lips were still moving and he was making animated hand gestures, as if he were still lecturing his audience, but no sound was emerging.
Gerontia, who had sensed a flash of octarine, was gripped by a sudden suspicion. She walked over to the wizard and rapped her knuckles in the empty air, three feet away from him. There was a sound like somebody knocking on glass. Gerontia threw a reproachful look at Nimue, who stood with arms folded, daring her to comment. Gerontia walked round the wizard, periodically rapping seemingly empty air with her knuckle and hearing the same fingers-on-glass note. Gerontia huffed into the air. Her breath fogged in mid-air, spreading out like condensation on glass.
"Oh, Nim." she said, her voice full of reproach. "After what you did to them mime artists what come round. You swore you'd never do it again."
"Well, he wanted to be in an invisible glass box." Nimue said, shrugging. "I give him what he wanted. You knows, a chance to hone his skills."
Gerontia glared at her.
"Yes, but you dint put no breathing holes in it." she pointed out. "When you let him out, he was in a right state."
"Good point." Nimue agreed. She waved her hands again. Now the wizard's drone could be heard, faint, far, and tinny. He still seemed not to have noticed.
"He's got breathin' holes now. While we think out what to do next."
Morgana joined them.
"Ygraine's gone back to her chambers for a llie-down." she said. "We had a bit of a talk. She's realllly pleased I speak her llanguage. Having nobody to talk to was getting her down."
"Lady-in-Waiting now, are we?" Nimue said, dissaprovingly.
Morgana made a little curtsey.
"Nobody tolld her one of the Witches is from Llamedos." she said. "Ygraine thinks that makes a difference. I can speak Kernawackese, that's just a dai llect."(2)
"So what do we do about him?" she asked, indicating the wizard in the invisible glass box.
"Well, Ygraine's not happy with him." Morgana said. "He knows about her and…." She mouthed the name Lancelot Pegley "..and , wellll, that's how he got allll that expensive allchemicall kit. And a good sallllary."
"But we knows about her and …." Gerontia mouthed the name Lance Pegley.
"We've agreed to keep the secret." Morgana reminded her. "Uther is going to be over the moon about the baby. His baby."
Nimue nodded, knowingly. "An' she's gone off the idea of a Court Wizard, an' wonderin' how to get rid, without losing face."
She glared at the boxed Wizard.
"Devious. Not entirely truthful. Talks too much. Well, let's fix that."
The three witches went into a huddle. Anyone looking in from outside might have heard low voices, too low to eavesdrop, punctuated by Gerontia Ogg loudly exclaiming "Nimue Weatherwax, that is tight!"
After a while a decision was reached.
"He's not going to thank us for this, you know." Gerontia said.
"He ain't got no choice in the matter. Age-old pact. The price has to be paid. And this bloody wizard is part of the rent."
She glared at the wizard, who was still speaking. His words were still audible as a background tinny drone, sounding like insects with a grievance.
"Can't he ever shut up? Givin' me a headache."
People who were hanging around, wanting to see what happened next, suddenly decided they wanted to watch from a far longer distance. Some made sure of it by retreating all the way to the Goat and Compass, reasoning they could find out about it later.
The three Witches spaced themselves out evenly around the glass cage. All three knew that this was going to take a lot of magic. And only Gerontia, who'd been there, was absolutely sure of the destination…
"On my count!" Three, two, one!"
There was a massive flash of octarine. The glass box and the Wizard vanished, leaving only a regular square of beaten-down grass on the castle mount.
Nimue allowed herself a little smile of satisfaction.
"Never did like blackmailers." she remarked, to nobody in particular.
"Reckon it's over, Nim?" Gerontia asked.
"We're done." Nimue confirmed. " We can come and go as we pleases, Uther's going to be a happy king several times over, Queenie gets her castle."
"And them two rockworms gets a clutch of eggs to sit. A long way underground. So happy endin's all round. Shall we go?"
Gerontia's brows furrowed in thought.
"That wizard ain't coming back…."
She looked down the slope of the mount and yelled
"Our Nefyl! You get up here with a handcart right now! Stuff to collect!"
Underneath the Long Man. A long way underneath the Long Man.
Historical Note, prepared by Miss Alice Band (Guild of Historians), principal tutor in History, Archaeology (Stealth and Conventional), Climbing, Traps, Evasion and Archery, at the Assassins' Guild School. With input from two gifted pupils.
Zoology is not my subject area. I know how to recognise the sort of animal which is likely to pose a problem, and take the appropriate action, which is generally to stand well clear and maintain an attentive watch.
Generally, however, animals are only of direct interest to the Historian if they impinge or otherwise impact on the course of history. The colony of Howondalandian Bees that were furious at having their privacy intruded upon by Ankh-Morporkian colonial soldiers setting up a battleline right among their hives, for instance. This provoked a disordered general retreat which the Matabel army (native soldiers who knew the perils of the area) were able to exploit, thus leading to a conclusive defeat for Ankh-Morpork that halted further Imperial expansion into the native kingdoms, and indirectly ensured the freedom of Black Howondaland to this day. All because of bees.(3)
Therefore, in assessing how the beginnings of modern Lancre can be glimpsed in this foundation myth, I am indebted to my colleague, Doctor Johanna Smith-Rhodes, principal tutor in Zoology, Natural Science and Biology, at the Assassins' Guild School.
Doctor Smith-Rhodes advises me that for many centuries, human zoology denied the existence of the rock-worm as a fable, a traveller's tale, and a cultural myth. She attributes this to the fact that human mines do not go down anything like as deep as those delved by Dwarfs, and that for what were very good and pressing reasons, humans never went anywhere near cave or tunnel systems colonised by Trolls.
Because for a very large part of our shared history, humans and Dwarfs never talked very much, the fact was lost that the species now known as Anguis Lapsussubterrae Monumentalis does, indeed, exist.(4)
Dwarfs regard them as a pest and a potentially dangerous nuisance. There is one case in Dwarfen history where the investiture of the office of Deep-Down Grag was fatally interrupted by the activities of a rock-worm burrowing underneath the investiture chamber. Thus causing major clinical instability on a fault-seam five miles , which resulted in the collapse of the Great Chamber of the Grags, taking out a low king, his entourage, and a thousand of the finest minds in Dwarf atheology.
How far this disaster prevented liberalisation of Dwarf not-religion, and for how long, is a question for History.
Dwarfs today have evolved elaborate alarm systems for dealing with rockworms, and it is understood a sub-caste of the deep-down Dwarfs have the designation gryz'kh an'yngkik, which translates as those who charm worms. Quite possibly their function is to persuade the rockworms to burrow away from any centres of Dwarf habitation, so that Dwarf and Rockworm may coexist in harmony.
Doctor Smith-Rhodes advises me that Dwarfs merely consider rockworms as a potentially hazardous nuisance. Trolls, on the other hand, fear them immensely. Given the diet of the rockworm is indeed rock, it is not hard to see why this is so. Trolls refer to one species of rockworm as the ouingrahallah-houlah , which is one of those very, very, few creatures which prey on trolls and considers them an edible delicacy. Johanna speculates that one of the purposes of the Dwarf worm-charmer, in fact, was to harness the rockworm as a weapon of war, to steer them away from Dwarf habitats, and if at all possible to vector them towards all those yummy trolls over there.
The existence of a rockworm colony at the Animal Management Unit is no secret. Doctor Smith-Rhodes assures me these are kept under strict observation in a secure habitat, and are only very young specimens of an animal suspected to take up to a century to grow and mature. At present, they are two feet long and remarkably tame, having been attuned to human handlers since emerging from the egg.
Lord Vetinari has also received urgent representations about this from Dwarf and Troll civic leaders in the city, and has advised Doctor Smith-Rhodes that he is monitoring the situation.
The current animal avatar of the Kingdom of Lancre, which appears on the national flag, is a bear. For a long time prior to the adoption of the bear, however, the national emblem of the land was two entwined dragons (or perhaps rockworms) , one white and one red.
How and in what circumstances the national flag changed from twined rockworms (or dragons) to a standing bear is a tale for another time, also covered by Birdwhistle. (5)
Underneath the Long Man. A long way underneath the Long Man.
The thing that had clattered into existence in the Long Chamber was now visible in the steam and heat. From the condensing steam forming and dripping off it, the observers gathered it was a squared-off rectangular box in some sort of clear crystal. Inside it was an elderly human in some sort of shabby-but-gaudy robes and a pointy hat. He appeared to be talking to an invisible audience – his lips were moving – and he was making animated hand gestures.
Summoned to view the phenomenon, the King of the Elves trotted forward and studied it form all angles.
"Like to a coffin." he remarked. "Only the human inside it isn't dead yet."
"Sent by Magic, Sire." A senior Elf ventured.
The king nodded.
"Bloody humans." he said. He shook his great horned head. "The Wizards have sent me one of their own, it seems. But why?"
"The Witches, sire. This is witch-magic. It reeks of it. The witches are careful and only perform acts of magic at great need. But when they do, they tend to get it right."
The King sniffed the air.
"Ogg." he said, at length. "That family never fails. And Weatherwax. Why am I not surprised?"
"And why should we not send it straight back?" the senior Elf remarked. He listened for a while. The crystal box was not completely soundproofed.
"An old Wizard chattering on to himself, concerning the habits and inclinations of rockworms." he remarked. "Hardly entertaining. Sire?"
The Elf-King rested his shaggy chin on his hand, in deep thought.
"I believe I know now why this is sent." he said. "this is part of the Reason. The bargain with humanity that allows us this place."
He went silent again.
"Brokered by Oggs. The price we pay for residence here is to guard and keep safe a great human King. A hundred of his Knights. And now, as I recall, one wizard."
He beckoned several Elves.
"They have now sent their Wizard. Take this thing up, but carefully, and put it in the Cave of the Sleepers with the rest. At least the enchantment in there means he'll bloody well shut up and stop talking."
"Sire? Some people talk in their sleep."
"I'll forget you said that, Atlendor."
Thus, Merddyn the Wizard, or perhaps Marvin, gained his immortality. Of sorts.
Lancre, ten months later.
The three witches sat on an earth bank looking up to the Castle Mount.
The Dwarfs had taken a little persuasion to return and continue with the build, but a visit to Copperhead by Nimue Weatherwax had convinced them that it was in their best interests to come out and fulfil the contract. Else, you never know, you might find out where them rock-worm thingies chose to go after leavin' the Castle Mount for good, and it's be a shame if you saw one of 'em racin' down that new deep gallery straight at you, you know, the one that looks promisin' for gold and silver. Everythin's got to live somewhere, after all.
Dwarfs had returned, and had spent the first flew weeks clearing and salvaging material from the shattered sub-levels in the dungeons. New pillars had arisen like stony trees to support the renewed inner floors, staircases had been built and made good, and the external walls of the new keep had begun to soar into the skies over the Lancre Gorge.
Now, the new castle keep rose for a hundred feet over the village, and the first of the sub-towers were appearing along the length of its walls and at the corners.
At the same time, the old Latatian castrum was disappearing, the best of its stone and brick being salvaged for recycling into the new building.(6)
"Shame to see the old place go." Nimue remarked.
"You can't fight progress, Nim." Gerontia said. "And dressed stone's the way to go for buildin'. No argument."
"You should know." Nimue said, darkly, glancing down at what was becoming the grandest and most modern house in the village. A plume of smoke rose from each chimney. Stone-built flues.
"Hear you've been busy, our Morgana." Gerontia remarked, changing the subject.
Morgana smiled happily.
"Hellping with young Arthur." she said. "I made a few suggestions to Ygraine. She realllly is allright, when you get to know her."
"What a name to give the boy." Gerontia commented, still keen to change the subject. "Arthur. Bloody common name for a Prince, if you ask me."
"Fifty percent chance he has a common bloody father." Nimue commented. "Lance Pegley's not been seen much round here lately, has he?"
"Morgana, love. Hear as how you helped plant the castle gardens?" Gerontia said, still changing the subject.
"Well. Not planting so much yet. But I helped plan them. I said to King Uther that if he wants the main entrance and gatehouse round the other side, then the old Llatatian villa is redundant as a building. I said to him, you don't need to build there and it was a sort of sunken building you go down into after descending a few steps. So why not just cover over the floor with four feet of earth, to bring it up to the llevel of the ground outside, and leave just a little low wall all round, you know, from the old building, and this can be a vegetable and herb garden?"
The older witches digested this.
"It means buryin' that mucky mural on the floor, though. I allus liked that."
"You mean the mosaic floor, Gerontia. This way means it's still there under the earth. They'd only dig it up and destroy it, otherwise. You never know. Maybe in a thousand years, somebody might dig down and find it."
The three witches watched as a chunk of stone fell from the top of one of the half-finished towers. They saw it plummet from sight down into the river gorge. Nimue sighed.
"That's dwarfs for you. Chiselling little buggers are skimping on the mortar."
"It'll still be here in a thousand years, Nim. Looks bloody solid, to me."
"Hmmph. Are we invited to dinner tonight, or is it just Queen Why-Drain's new best friend Morgana?"
"I'll have a word with Kay." Gerontia said. "He's all excited about a new way to do a place-settin', love him to bits." (7)
They took in the activity on the building-site and sat in companiable silence.
"Them wizards dint stay long." Nimue remarked.
"Dint need to." Gerontia said. "They was chasin' Marvin for a pile of overdue library books. I showed 'em the books in his old rooms, explained he'd done a runner and nobody can find him, they said they'd report it when they took the books back to the University library. Also that there's a sort of place for the belongin's of a dead wizard, called the Stack or something, so they packed everythin' up and went again. Dint seem keen on stayin'."
"Hmmph." Nimue said. I'm just bettin' they never found the one on distillin' fractional essences or whatever it was called? Nor all that glasswork and tubes and stuff?"
Gerontia looked her old friend in the eye.
"All that stuff went missin', Nim. I hear the Wizards never found it."
"Hmmph. Wonder where it went?"
The two witches looked each other in the eye.
Gerontia Ogg grinned.
"Fancy that drink, Nim?"
Historical Note, prepared by Miss Alice Band (Guild of Historians), principal tutor in History, Archaeology (Stealth and Conventional), Climbing, Traps, Evasion and Archery, at the Assassins' Guild School. With input from two gifted pupils.
The possibility that a whole and undisturbed floor-mosaic of the High Latatian Period remains intact underneath the vegetable gardens at Lancre Castle is a phenomenally exciting one. At present, alas, I cannot think of any way to verify this that does not involve digging up Queen Magrat's herb-beds, and she has given a flat "no" to requests for at least a trial dig. But I remain in hope.
Thanks are due to my student Mariella Smith-Rhodes, who in her diligent research for this piece of writing, compared known floor and ground plans of Lancre Castle to the likeliest place where a Castrum would have gone, and pointed out there may well be things of interest underneath a walled garden cultivated by a long sucession of Lancrastrian queens. I do recall, on my stayat the Castle, speculating on whether the wall surrounding the Queen's private garden coulsd well be a Latatian survival, disregarded after so long; but I was also bound to respect my hosts' prohibition on any active archaeology involving spade and trowel.
Maybe at some point in the future this question can be settled conclusively. We can only hope.
For now, I commend this imaginative work to its readership.
From: J.H.C. Goatberger (Proprietor)
To: Mr Thos. Cropper (Overseer)
From: Mr Thos. Cropper (Overseer)
To: J.H.C. Goatberger (Proprietor)
(1) Shrewsbury is a fortress town on what were called the Border Marches of England and Wales. Quite a lot of back-and-forward fighting and raiding went on when England and Wales were separate nations in the mediaeval era. Even today a little Welsh is spoken inside what is technically England, and shops and supermarkets in Oswestry and Welshpool are as bilingual as any you will find on the Welsh side of the border. Buried Shrew? It's like Bad Ass – don't ask.
(2) Cornish is a Celtic language struggling on the brink of extinction; opinions vary but it can be seen as a dialect of Welsh, mutually intelligible. There is a language revival movement going on, but revived Cornish will inevitably be heavily shaped by being so near to Wales and may in time become a Welsh dialect form.
(3) Really true: happened in a battle in Tanganyika in the First World War. A handful of German colonial infantry and loyal native soldiers were facing certain defeat – until the attacking British started disturbing hives full of African Bees. German East Africa (Tanganyika) was not completely defeated until 1917 after four years of fighting, cut off from the German homeland and any possibility of resupply or reinforcement.
(4) Canis Latanicus for Earthquake Worm
(5) Meaning I haven't figured this out, either. If come up with anything halfway plausible, it might make a story.
(6) And, Nimue suspected into the new and more solid walls that were replacing the wattle-and-daub of Gerontia's house. Which also, mysteriously, appeared to be getting bigger and which had sprung an unexpected shed annex in the back. Gerontia pointed out this was a Witch's house, and strange things happened around Witches. "What, like your Nefyl arriving quietly by night with a cart-load of building material swiped off the site?" Nimue had asked. "Every night, seems like?"
"He's a good boy, our Nefyl." Gerontia had replied. "Fancy a drink?"
"Yes, I was meanin' to ask you about that…"
(7) Sir Kay was the son of a father who considered giving him a girl's name would toughen him up a bit and teach him how to fight. Instead, he'd gone through life with other boys at school sympathising and exclaiming that your father really is a git, don't worry, got a middle name we could use? Vexingly for his father, Kay had grown up to have an interest in home economics, party-planning and domestic management, and had duly ended up as butler and Castle Manager to Uther and Ygraine, who recognised his unique talents.
Where the magic(k)al fallout from any misunderstandings between a Wizard and a Witch is safely contained.
On the FB site, a page of a mediaeval manuscript showing two dragons locked in battle was repurposed with the legend
For just five shillings a month
You can provide dragons like these
With the food and shelter and medical attention they need
The idea was to present it as a flyer for the Sunshine Sanctuary for Sick Dragons. Recognising the source, I wrote a quick paragraph:
Ah, the Llamedosian Red and the Chalk White playing out their age-old enmity. This bloody Wizard turned up and said it was a metaphor for something or other, two peoples locked in age old enmity, but as he chundered on about it for so long, a local Witch called Nimue Jenkins locked him in a soundproof crystal box in a vain attempt to shut him up - local myth says he's still there, explaining poetic metaphor and its place in history, to this day...
Since then I've been having Ideas to repurpose this as a longer story. As you do.
I'm not sure if the longer story will fit here – so in the spirit of recent musings on elephants with wings, the "original" is going here together with credit for the inspiration, and the expanded and reworked story will fit in elsewhere.
Yes, I do know the title is half in Danish – couldn't find an online translator for Anglo-Saxon, so Danish will have to stand in, for now.
(8) Thanks to Jake Campbell and Maureen Fedarb - the original inspiration!