Whys and were-fores c1
The two candidates stood in the dark humid night, naked, but still trying to suppress shivers in the hot jungle dark. Above them in the clearing, stars glimmered brightly in a night with only a half-moon. Normally there was continual noise and sound from the enveloping tropical jungle. On this night there was nothing, save the throbbing of the drums and the occasional ritual chant.
Torn between fear and a sensation this was all going to be a disappointing waste of time, N'kima looked at his friend N'juri and tried to share a reassuring smile. N'juri merely remained, staring out into the dark as if he was already looking into the otherworld for what he could see there.
N'kima tried to make himself a stern black statue, like the other four young men and women out there undergoing the Initiation, aware that out there, the senile and half-crazed Witch-Finder was dancing and capering around the magic circle. He heard the tethered goat, the sacrifice for the night, braying with fear.
Brothers! They come! They come! Sisters! They arrive! They are here!
A high-pitched ululation of welcome rose from the Society members, who were somewhere out there in the dark singing and dancing welcome to their brothers and sisters from the deep jungle.
The five neophytes tensed themselves, suppressing a desire to run as the five low sinuous shapes detached themselves from the jungle's edge. Three boys and two girls, naked and unarmed, faced their final test, one they had been trained to since earliest youth. Tonight was the culmination.
N'Kima shook away the fear, bit his lip, and concentrated. Behind him, the Witch-finder Un'Godeli shrieked
Come, o sistern! Come forward, our brethren! Become as one with those who would be as you, yet remain human! Come forward!
The drumming and the ululating grew louder. N'Kima found his head swimming, expansing, re-shaping. The shapes closing unhurriedly with them became four leopards. And one of Them, N'kima marvelled. They are rarely absorbed. But taboo and bad fetishes accompany Them…
The leopard welcomed him, rubbing up against his legs like one of the smaller feral cats that eked a suspicious living on the margins of the kraal.
Was it purring?
The creature reared up on its hind-legs, the feral stench of old meat coming from its mouth. It licked the boy's face with a rough but reassuring tongue.
It is as was said. I am being welcomed. It has accepted me.
Then the transition began. N'kima writhed in soundless pain, hearing a soundless roar, as the essences of man and beast met and merged. He heard distant screaming mingled with enraged roaring. Someone had been refused, or had sought to refuse. He would know later… but which of us has It chosen? I'm glad it was not me….
He awoke with the dawn, one of four whole naked bodies lying in the grass. He was aware, in a groggy kind of way, of something having Changed. As the others awoke, groaning, he spat blood and shreds of raw flesh out of his mind. He looked over to an empty tether.
I really hope that was goat, he thought. He loked across to the girl N'mbl, who was bloodstained right down her body. She was obviously having similar thoughts. Then looked over to N'juri, who was…. Sitting, still and feral, with an unreadable smile on his face. N'juri was a son of a chief. Whilst N'kima counted him as a friend, he could be wary of the other's hauteur and bad temper. He would not be a man to cross or get on the bad side of.
And then he saw the flattened grass and what was left of the fifth, he whose nerve had broken, he who had tried to run at the last challenge.
And he looked down to the white, rounded, object lying broken at N'juri's feet and he knew, for certain, who had accepted and been accepted by It, the creature of taboo and grim fetish. Now he knew he and the two sisters had only eaten goat that night. N'juri had been selected by the gods for richer meat.
But then, he'd never really wanted to join the Leopard Society.
Ankh-Morpork, ten years later.
The trainee Watchmen and women in the yard of the Lemonade Factory were allowed a few minutes break from the incessant training. They had been working in what the Watch called "Toytown", a mocked-up set of Ankh-Morpork streets and houses built into the big warehouse at Vimes' expense, so that they could safely learn some of the hazards of patrolling in the City's meaner districts. (1) Semi-employed locals, after suitable vetting, were paid seventy-five pence a day to occupy the buildings on training days and make life as inventively difficult for the trainee coppers as they could.(2) To the civvies pretending to be thieves, thugs, rioters, the occasional innocent civilian, et c, it was money well and enjoyably earnt. Out-of-work actors were also employed to play Assassins, Thieves, Seamstresses, and other occupational members that the Guild could not normally touch.
This afternoon, the drill had been one of containing a rioting Troll, in the absence of any Troll or Golem members of the Watch. This involved getting up on a higher level and dropping a weighted net over the enraged silicoid. But one trainee Special had distinguished herself by leaping for a protruding flagstaff over a second-floor window, swinging her weight right round it as if she were a champion gymnast, and kicking it in the back of the neck with just the right amount of non-lethal force. The luckless stunt-troll had dropped like a stone, thus entailing the early end of the exercise.
In a confrontation exercise with an angry mob, the bear-like Norman Hutchisides, forgetting himself and reverting to type as team captain of Lobsneaks Wanderers, had waved a threatening finger once too often in the face of that particular Special and doused her in a little too much spittle.
There had been a dull crack, and she had stepped over his suddenly recumbent and surprised-looking body to ask if enyone else fencied their luck.
The mock-riot had dissolved in some confusion, and Captain Carrot had intervened.
"Probationary Special Constable Smith-Rhodes, a word, please?" he had said, pleasantly.
Walking over to where Commander Vimes waited for them in the office, Carrot had said, pleasantly,
"How long have you been training with us as a Special now, miss Smith-Rhodes?"
"For two full weeks of the long school holiday, end et least one day a week since. It is very interesting!"
Carrot had nodded, and the rest of the trainees, with some relief, watched the two redheads disappear across the yard. Carrot was authority, after all, and the confident red-haired girl generally made them feel nervous.
"What we doing standing here?" Sergeant Detritus bellowed at them. "You is tired? You want rest? We form up by threes and we do foot drill!"
Groaning, the trainees formed up.
Meanwhile in the Twaddle Room, Commander Vimes lit his cigar and nodded at the new arrivals. Sergeant Angua stood by the wall silent and unheeded. Her left arm was bandaged.
"Ah, Probationary Special Constable Smith-Rhodes" he said, pleasantly. Johanna saluted. Her Assassin-grade armour and equipment stood out a mile from that of her Watch colleagues. Firstly it was high-quality – Assassins did not skimp on essentials; secondly, it was enamelled black, as opposed to the plain somewhat tarnished standard-issue; and it was so far unmarked. Johanna, who in her profession of Assassin was a well-trained lethal weapon in herself, believed that if the client was given a chance to make any sort of retaliatory blow that could dent your armour, then you were doing something wrong.
At first, she had been treated with suspicion by the other Watch members as the worst sort of hobby-bobby – a thrill-seeker with money – and then the story had circulated as to how she had become the first Licenced Assassin to be accepted in the Watch.
The tale of how she had saved Mr Vimes' life from wild lions during the Hide Park Safari had earned her some grudging admiration. Vimes had responded by offering her a position as a Special, together with the right to call him Mister. Sensing these two rights went together as a package, Johanna had accepted.(3) Besides, Lord Downey had called for Guild members to be more public-spirited when off-duty. He had frowned at one of his Assassins joining the Watch in any capacity, but when reminded of his own words, had reluctantly agreed, with a reminder as to where her loyalties should lie.
Joanna, meanwhile, had spurned neither the exercise, nor the chance to learn new skills that could round her off as an Assassin.
"Let me recap." Vimes said.
Hup, two, three, MANY! Hup, two, three, MANY!
"Between the ages of seventeen and twenty, you did National Service in the Howondalandian Volkkskommando. You served with a special forces' unit that saw action both in the desert and the jungle. During a long leave, you went rogue when you saw what raiding Zulus had done to a neighbour's farm. With a small hand-picked crew, you crossed the border, and performed what Assassins charmingly call inhumation with extreme prejudice on the Zulu chief responsible This involved a large barrel of Agatean Fireclay and a short fuse. This made you a national heroine, at least for a while, although you lost rank for going against standing orders. Your last job in state service was as part of the crew escorting the bullion ship De Vliegende Howondalaandian …"
Vimes stumbled over the foreign syllables. Johanna thought better of correcting him, but translated the name.
"The Flying Howondalandian, Mr Vimes."
"The bullion ship into Ankh-Morpork. Here, the Assassins' Guild made you a proposition. You were not looking forward to civilian status again, as after your unauthorised Zululand excursion, the Army had said it would not re-enlist you. My wife also suggested that you weren't looking forward to going back to Howondaland full stop, if all it had to offer was being somebody's wife and raising his children."
"Lady Sybil is very perceptive." Johanna said, in agreement. Vimes nodded.
"She is, isn't she? So being an adventurous and out-going young lady, you joined the Assassin's Guild. You've lived here ever since, and I'm forced to say you've been more of an asset than a blot on this city. When you saved my life last year, I really didn't have a choice, did I?"
Vimes took a draw on his cigar.
"Besides, you're the only one out of the whole damn' bunch who's come anywhere near inhuming me, so I want somebody like you where I can see you. And I never penalise my Watchwomen for being overenthusiastic."
"Do you have any criticism of the wey I do the job?" she asked.
"Hell, no!" Vimes had said. "Coalface might wake up with a sore neck, and Hutchisides will probably put himself on the subs' bench if Lobsneaks are ever drawn to pay the Assassins' Guild, but I'm not penalising you for either. No, I'm forced to consider that routine street policing is possibly going to waste your not inconsiderable talents. I've got a job for you. Special police work. Interested?"
"Very!" said Johanna.
"Good. Brief her, Angua".
Angua von Überwald stepped forwards. Johanna's eyes were drawn to her bandages. They had worked together before and knew each other: while not close friends, each permitted the other the courtesy of respect for a talented, able, professional. Besides, both were in agreement that Ankh-Morpork could only be improved by having more professional women in what had previously been men-only jobs.
"Last night I ran into them again" Angua said, getting straight to the point. She lifted a bandaged arm. "It'll ease and heal. It does quickly, for werewolves. But I got out of a bit of a scrap only because they backed off and ran. Sally, my partner, arrived and I think they thought better of it. But she had to get me to a Watch-house quickly to get medical help, or we'd have followed."
She smiled, darkly.
"One I'd have beaten. Two, you carefully run away from. But three?"
"Three of whet, exectly?" Johanna asked.
"Leopards, Johanna. Leopards. From Howondaland."
Johanna breathed out, hard. An expert in animal handling, she assisted the Watch frequently on difficult cases. This was another good reason for Vimes to have signed her up as a special.
Hup, two, three, MANY! Hup, two, three, MANY! Pick it up!
"Is there any chance at all, Constable, that we missed any in the clear-up of Hide Park last summer? We've been getting these reports sporadically since last September. And the Klatchian ambassador had a favourite hunting dog ripped apart by large feral creatures just before Hogswatch." said Vimes.
"I found the poor thing" Angua said. "I could also smell large cat. I think they'd have fed on it, if they hadn't smelt a wolf nearby and been spooked by me."(4)
Johanna shook her head.
"No, I'm sure we got them ell. You yourself made the very sensible move to throw raw meat to the escaped large cats, to give them a reason to stey in the Perk end not to move out. We moved them to the City Zoo, end none escaped. These must be new errivals since."
"Some bugger importing the kittens because, well, they look cute, don't they, then letting them loose when they got too big for comfort" grated Vimes, who'd taken Young Sam to the new Zoo on several mutually enjoyable occasions. "When I find them, I'm throwing the book!"
"Perheps, Commender, Only perheps". Something had nudged a memory in Johanna, but she couldn't place it yet.
"Anyway, you and Angua are on this case. Patrol together as often as you can, your normal duties permitting. Get those bloody leopards!"
Anthony N'Kima, special attaché at the Kwa'Zululand Embassy, looked up and saw the first glimpse of the moon.
We will be running again soon. The flux is strong!
He thought of N'Juri, who had accompanied him on this long exile by order of the Paramount Chief, and shuddered.
It might be fun if it wasn't for him… attacking the policewoman, possibly the only one in the city capable of realising what we are...
(1) The British Army built a similar mock village on Salisbury Plain so that new soldiers could learn all about the possible hazards of patrolling built-up areas in Northern Ireland. It was also used to teach the rudiments of house-to-house fighting in Central Europe, should World War Three ever have broken out in Germany. Toytown was back in the news lately after proposals to update it with typical Iraqui-Afghan buildings, including a mosque, for the current war. British Islamic groups protested against the inclusion of a mock-Mosque. Strange, but true.
(2) Also true. The British Army paid its "barracks rats", ie Army families and children from married quarters, to play rioting Northern Irelanders and not to hold back on bricks, bottles, invective, et c. The general attitude was that it was good training and good exercise for everybody.
(3) See my story The Urban Safari
(4) See my short story Il se passait au nuit du Pere Porcher.