Thief of Time

Page 24


'How did it do that?'

'Good question. They can save their life up to a certain point and go back to it if they get killed,' said Lu-Tze. 'How it's done... well, the abbot spent the best part of a decade working that one out. Not that anyone else can understand it. There's a lot of quantum involved.' He took a pull of his permanent foul cigarette. 'Gotta be good working-out, if no one else can understand it.'[14] 'How is der abboott these daays?' said the yeti, getting to its feet again and picking up the pilgrims. 'Teething.'

'Ah. Reincarnation's alwaays a problem,' said the yeti, falling into its long, ground-eating lope. 'Teeth are the worst, he says. Always coming or going.'

'How fast are we going?' said Lobsang. The yeti's stride was more like a continuous series of leaps from one foot to the other; there was so much spring in the long legs that each landing was a mere faint rocking sensation. It was almost restful. 'I reckon we're doing thirty miles an hour or so, clock time,' said Lu-Tze. 'Get some rest. We'll be above Copperhead in the morning. It's all downhill from there.'

'Coming back from the dead...' Lobsang murmured. 'It's more like not actually ever going in the first place,' said Lu-Tze. 'I've studied them a bit, but... well, unless it's built in you'd have to learn how to do it, and would you want to bet on getting it right first time? Tricky one. You'd have to be desperate. I hope I'm never that desperate.' Tick Susan recognized the country of Lancre from the air, a little bowl of woods and fields perched like a nest on the edge of the Ramtop mountains. And she found the cottage, too, which was not the corkscrew-chimneyed compost-heap kind of witch's house popularized by Grim Fairy Tales and other books, but a spanking new one with gleaming thatch and a manicured front lawn. There were more ornaments - gnomes, toadstools, pink bunnies, big-eyed deer - around a tiny pond than any sensible gardener should have allowed. Susan spotted one brightly painted gnome fishi- No, that wasn't a rod he was holding, was it? Surely a nice old lady wouldn't put something like that in her garden, would she? Would she? Susan was bright enough to go round to the back, because witches were allergic to front doors. The door was opened by a small, fat, rosy-cheeked woman whose little currant eyes said, yep, thars my gnome all right, and be thankful he's only widdling in the pond. 'Mrs Ogg? The midwife?' There was a pause before Mrs Ogg said, 'The very same.'

'You don't know me, but-' said Susan, and realized that Mrs Ogg was looking past her at Binky, who was standing by the gate. The woman was a witch, after all. 'Maybe I do know you,' said Mrs Ogg. 'O'course, if you just stole that horse, you just don't know how much trouble you're in.'

'I borrowed it. The owner is... my grandfather.' Another pause, and it was disconcerting how those friendly little eyes could bore into yours like an auger. 'You'd better come in,' said Mrs Ogg. The inside of the cottage was as clean and new as the outside. Things gleamed, and there were a lot of them to gleam. The place was a shrine to bad but enthusiastically painted china ornaments, which occupied every flat surface. What space was left was full of framed pictures. Two harassed-looking women were polishing and dusting. 'I got comp'ny,' said Mrs Ogg sternly, and the women left with such alacrity that the word 'fled' might have been appropriate.

'My daughters-in-law,' said Mrs Ogg, sitting down in a plump armchair which, over the years, had shaped itself to fit her. 'They like to help a poor old lady who's all alone in the world.' Susan took in the pictures. If they were all family members, Mrs Ogg was head of an army. Mrs Ogg, unashamedly caught out in a flagrant lie, went on: 'Sit down, girl, and say what's on your mind. There's tea brewing.'

'I want to know something.'

'Most people do,' said Mrs Ogg. 'And they can go on wantin'.'

'I want to know about... a birth,' said Susan, persevering. 'Oh, yes? Well, I done hundreds of confinements. Thousands, prob'ly.'

'I imagine this one was difficult.'

'A lot of them are,' said Mrs Ogg. 'You'd remember this one. I don't know how it started, but I'd imagine that a stranger came knocking.'

'Oh?' Mrs Ogg's face became a wall. The black eyes stared out at Susan as if she was an invading army. 'You're not helping me, Mrs Ogg.'

'That's right. I ain't,' said Mrs Ogg. 'I think I know about you, miss, but I don't care who you are, you see. You can go and get the other one, if you like. Don't think I ain't seen him, neither. I've been at plenty of deathbeds, too. But deathbeds is public, mostly, and birthbeds ain't. Not if the lady don't want them to be. So you get the other one, and I'll spit in his eye.'

'This is very important, Mrs Ogg.'

'You're right there,' said Mrs Ogg firmly. 'I can't say how long ago it was. It may have been last week, even. Time, that's the key.' And there it was. Mrs Ogg was not a poker player, at least against someone like Susan. There was the tiniest flicker of the eyes. Mrs Ogg's chair was rammed back in her effort to rise, but Susan got to the mantelpiece first and snatched what was there, hidden in plain view amongst the ornaments. 'You give that here!' shouted Mrs Ogg, as Susan held it out of her reach. She could feel the power in the thing. It seemed to pulse in her hand. 'Have you any idea what this is, Mrs Ogg?' she said, opening her hand to reveal the little glass bulbs.

'Yes, it's an eggtimer that don't work!' Mrs Ogg sat down hard in her overstuffed chair, so that her little legs rose off the floor for a moment. 'It looks to me like a day, Mrs Ogg. A day's worth of time.' Mrs Ogg glanced at Susan, and then at the little hourglass in her hand. 'I reckoned there was something odd about it,' she said. 'The sand don't go through when you tip it up, see?'

'That's because you don't need it to yet, Mrs Ogg.' Nanny Ogg appeared to relax. Once again Susan reminded herself that she was dealing with a witch. They tended to keep up. 'I kept it 'cos it was a gift,' said the old lady. 'And it looks so pretty, too. What do them letters round the edge say?' Susan read the words etched on the metal base of the lifetimer: Tempus Redux. ' “Time Returned”,' she said. 'Ah, that'd be it,' said Mrs Ogg. 'The man did say I'd be repaid for my time.'

'The man... ?' said Susan gently. Nanny Ogg glanced up, her eyes ablaze. 'Don't you try to take advantage of me just 'cos I'm moment'r'ly a bit flustered,' she snapped. 'There's no way round Nanny Ogg!' Susan looked at the woman, and this time not with the lazy eye. And there was, indeed, no way round Mrs Ogg. But there was another way, with Mrs Ogg. It went straight through the heart. 'A child needs to know his parents, Mrs Ogg,' she said. 'Now more than ever. He needs to know who he really is. It's going to be hard for him, and I want to help him.'

'Why?'

'Because I wish someone had helped me,' said Susan. 'Yes, but there's rules to midwifery,' said Nanny Ogg. 'You don't say what was said or what you saw. Not if the lady don't want you to.' The witch wriggled awkwardly in her chair, her face going red. She wants to tell me, Susan knew. She's desperate to. But I've got to play it right, so she can square it with herself. 'I'm not asking for names, Mrs Ogg, because I expect you don't know them,' she went on. 'That's true.'

'But the child-'

'Look, miss, I'm not supposed to tell a living soul about-'

'If it helps, I'm not entirely certain that I am one,' said Susan. She watched Mrs Ogg for a while. 'But I understand. There have to be rules, don't there? Thank you for your time.' Susan stood up and put the preserved day back on the mantelpiece. Then she walked out of the cottage, shutting the door behind her. Binky was waiting by the gate. She mounted up, and it wasn't until then that she heard the door open. 'That's what he said,' said Mrs Ogg. 'When he gave me the eggtimer. “Thank you for your time, Mrs Ogg,” he said. You'd better come back in, my girl.' Tick Death found Pestilence in a hospice in Llamedos. Pestilence liked hospitals. There was always something for him to do. Currently he was trying to remove the 'Now Wash Your Hands' sign over a cracked basin. He looked up. 'Oh, it's you,' he said. 'Soap? I'll give 'em soap!' I SENT OUT THE CALL, said Death. 'Oh. Yes. Right. Yes,' said Pestilence, clearly embarrassed. YOU'VE STILL GOT YOUR HORSE? 'Of course, but ...' YOU HAD A FINE HORSE. 'Look, Death... it's ... look, it's not that I don't see your point, but- Excuse me...' Pestilence stepped aside as a white-robed nun, completely ignorant of the two Horsemen, passed between them. But he took the opportunity to breathe in her face. 'Just a mild flu,' he said, catching Death's expression. SO WE CAN COUNT ON YOU, CAN WE? 'To ride out...' YES. 'For the Big One...' IT'S EXPECTED OF US.

'How many of the others have you got?' YOU ARE THE FIRST. 'Er...' Death sighed. Of course, there had been plenty of diseases, long before humans had been around. But humans had definitely created Pestilence. They had a genius for crowding together, for poking around in jungles, for siting the midden so handily next to the well. Pestilence was, therefore, part human, with all that this entailed. He was frightened. I SEE, he said. 'The way you put it-' YOU ARE AFRAID? 'I'll ... think about it.' YES. I AM SURE YOU WILL. Tick Quite a lot of brandy splashed into Mrs Ogg's mug. She waved the bottle vaguely at Susan, with an enquiring look. 'No, thank you.'

'Fair enough. Fair enough.' Nanny Ogg put the bottle aside and took a draught of the brandy as though it were beer. 'A man came knocking,' she said. 'Three times he came, in my life. Last time was, oh, maybe ten days ago. Same man every time. He wanted a midwife-'

'Ten days ago?' said Susan. 'But the boy's at least sixt-' She stopped. 'Ah, you've got it,' said Mrs Ogg. 'I could see you was bright. Time didn't matter to him. He wanted the best midwife. And it was, like, he'd found out about me but got the date wrong, just like you or me could knock on the wrong door. Can you understand what I mean?'

'More than you think,' said Susan. 'The third time' - another gulp at the brandy - 'he was in a bit of a state,' said Mrs Ogg. 'That's how I knew he was just a man, despite everything that happened after. It was because he was panicking, to tell you the truth. Pregnant fathers often panic. He was going on about me coming right away and how there was no time. He had all the time in the world, he just wasn't thinking properly, 'cos husbands never do when the time comes. They panic 'cos it ain't their world any more.'

'And what happened next?' said Susan.

'He took me in his, well, it was like one of them old chariots, he took me to...' Mrs Ogg hesitated. 'I've seen a lot of strange things in my life, I'll have you know,' she said, as if preparing the ground for a revelation. 'I can believe it.'

'It was a castle made of glass.' Mrs Ogg gave Susan a look that dared her to disbelieve. Susan decided to hurry things up. 'Mrs Ogg, one of my earliest memories is of helping to feed the Pale Horse. You know? The one outside? The horse of Death? His name is Binky. So please don't keep stopping. There is practically no limit to the things I find normal.'

'There was a woman... well eventually there was a woman,' said the witch. 'Can you imagine someone exploding into a million pieces? Yes, I expect you can. Well, imagine it happening the other way. There's a mist and it's all flying together and then, whoosh, there's a woman. Then, whoosh, back into a mist again. And all the time, this noise...' Mrs Ogg ran her finger round the edge of the brandy glass, making it hum. 'A woman kept... incarnating and then disappearing again? Why?'

'Because she was frightened, of course! First time, see?' Mrs Ogg grinned. 'I person'ly never had any problems in that area, but I've been at a lot of births when it's all new to the girl and she'll be frightened as hell and when push comes to shove, if you take my meaning, old midwifery term, she'll be yellin' and swearin' at the father and I reckon that she'd give anything to be somewhere else. Well, this lady could be somewhere else. We'd have been in a real pickle if it wasn't for the man, as it turned out.'

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