I salute you, said a thought that was not his, and he felt the sudden absence of something whose presence he had not noticed. In the blackness behind his eyes, some dark fin swished, and disappeared.
He heard a whimper, and the weight on him disappeared. He rolled over and saw, fading in the middle of the air, a crude drawing of an eye with a tail. It dwindled into nothing, and the all-enveloping darkness slowly gave way to flames and the light of the vurms. Blood had been spilled; they were pouring down the walls. He felt ...
A certain amount of time passed. Vimes jerked awake.
"I read it for him!" he said, mostly to reassure himself.
"You did, sir," said the voice of Angua, behind him. "Very clearly, too. We were more than two hundred yards away. Well done, sir. We thought you ought to have a rest."
"What have I done well?" said Vimes, trying to sit up. The movement filled his world with pain, but he managed a brief glimpse before slumping back.
There was a lot of smoke in the cave, but there were actual torches flickering, here and there. And a great many dwarfs some distance away, some sitting down, some standing around in groups.
"Why are there so many dwarfs here, sergeant?" he asked, looking up at the cavern roof. "That is, why are there so many dwarfs here that aren"t actually trying to kill us?"
"They"re from the Low King, sir. We"re their prisoners ... sort of ... er ... but not exactly. .
"Of Rhys? Bugger that!" said Vimes, trying to get to his feet again. "I saved his bloody life once!" He managed to get upright, but then the world pivoted around him and he would have fallen if Angua hadn"t caught him and lowered him on to a rock. Well, at least he was sitting up now ...
"Not exactly prisoners," Angua said. "We can"t go anywhere. But since we wouldn"t know where to go even if we could go somewhere, it"s all a bit superfluous. Sorry I"m only in a shift, sir, you know how it is. The dwarfs have promised to fetch my gear. Er ... it"s all gone political, sir. The dwarf in command is a decent sort but he"s way out of his depth, so he"s sticking with what he
knows, sir. And, er, he doesn"t know a lot. Do you remember anything about what happened? You"ve been out for a good twenty minutes."
"Yes. There were ... woolly lambs. .. Vimes"s voice trailed into silence for a while. Somehow, what he"d just said took the ring of veracity and dropped it in a deep, deep hole. "There weren"t woolly lambs, right?"
"I didn"t see any," said Angua carefully. "I did see a striding, screaming, vengeful maniac, sir. But in a good way," she added.
The internal Vimes looked at memories he didn"t remember from the first time around.
"Everything"s ... sort of fine, sir," said Angua quickly. "But come and see this. Bashfullsson said you ought to see everything.!
"Bashfullsson ... he"s the know-it-all dwarf, right?" he said.
"Ah, it"s all coming back, sir," said Angua. "Good. He was a bit worried about that."
Vimes was steadier on his feet now, but his right arm hurt like hell and all the other pains that the day had accumulated were coming back and waving. Angua carefully led him through puddles and across rocks as slippery as wet marble until they reached a stalagmite. It was about eight feet high.
It was a troll. It wasn"t a rock shaped like a troll, it was a troll. They only got stonier when they died, Vimes knew, but the lines of this one had been softened by the milky rock dripped on its head.
"But now look at this, sir," said Angua, leading him on. "They were destroying them.
There was another stalagmite, lying on its side in a pool. It had been smashed off at the base. And it was ... a dwarf.
Dwarfs crumble after death just like humans, but all the armour, mail, chains and heavy leather mean there"s no great change to the eye of the casual observer. The flowing rock had covered it all in a glistening shroud.
Vimes straightened up and looked across the cavern. Shapes loomed in the gloom, all the way to the near wall where the drip of ages had formed a perfect ivory waterfall, frozen in time.
"There are more?"
"About twenty, sir. Half of them had been smashed before you ... arrived. Look at this one over here, sir. You can just make them out. They"re sitting back to back, sir."
Vimes stared at the figures under the glaze, and shook his head. A dwarf and a troll, together, cemented in rock.
"Is there anything to eat?" he said. It wasn"t the most awe-inspired thing to say, but it came from the stomach, with feeling.
"Our rations got lost in the excitement, sir. But the dwarfs will share theirs. They aren"t unfriendly, sir. Just cautious."
"Share? They have dwarf bread?"
"I"m afraid so, sir."
"I thought it was illegal to give that to prisoners. I think I"ll wait, thanks. And now, sergeant, you can tell me about the excitement."
It hadn"t exactly been an ambush; the dwarfs just caught up with them. Their captain had been given rather wide orders to follow Vimes and his party, and there had been a certain chilliness when he found that the party included two trolls. This was still Koom Valley, after all. Vimes felt a pang of sympathy for him; he"d had a simple job to do, and suddenly it was full of politics. Been there, done that, bought the singlet.
Forward Grag Bashfullsson, who had a way with words. Since they were all going the same way ...
And it had been a long way. The fleeing dwarfs had brought
down the ceiling not far from the entrance tunnel, and a journey that had taken Vimes a few minutes had taken the pursuers the best part of a day, even with Sally scouting ahead. Angua spoke of caves even bigger than this, of vast waterfalls in the dark. Vimes said, yes, he knew.
Then the words of Where"s My Cow? had boomed under Koom Valley, shaking the rock of ages and making the stalactites hum in sympathy, and the rest had been a matter of running ...
"I can remember reading to Young Sam," said Vimes slowly. "But there were these ... strange pictures in my head." He stopped. All that anger, all that red-hot rage, had flowed out of him in a torrent, without thought. "I killed those damn soldiers. .
"Most of them, sir," said Angua cheerfully. "And there"s a couple of miners who got in the way who"ll be aching for months."
It was all coming back to Vimes now. He wished it wasn"t. There was always a part of the human brain that objected to fighting dwarfs. They were child-sized. Oh, they were also at least as strong as a human, and more resilient, and would take any advantage in a fight, and if you were lucky you learned to overcome that prejudice before you were hacked off at the knees, but it was always there ...
"I remember those old dwarfs," he said. "They were cowering like little maggots. I wanted to smash them. .
"You resisted for almost four seconds, sir, and then I brought you down," said Angua.
"And that was a good thing, was it?" said Vimes.
"Oh, yes. It"s why you"re still here, commander," said Bashfullsson, appearing from behind a stalagmite. "I"m glad to see you up and about again. This is an historic day! And you still have a soul, it appears! Isn"t that nice?"
"Now you listen to me-" Vimes began.
"No, you listen to me, commander. Yes, I knew you"d come to Koom Valley, because the Summoning Dark would come here. It needed you to bring it. No, listen to me, because we don"t have much time. The Summoning Dark symbol commands an entity as old as the universe. But it has no real body and very little physical strength; it can cover a million dimensions in the blink of an eye but could barely make it across a room. It works through living creatures, especially ones it finds ... amenable. It found you, commander, a cauldron of anger, and in small subtle ways it saw that you got it to this place."
"I believe him, sir," said Angua quickly. "It was the one called up as a curse by one of the miners. Remember? The one who drew the sign in his own blood? On a locked door? And you-"
"There was a door that stung when I touched it, I remember..." said Vimes. "Are you telling me that behind that door he- Oh, no . .
"He was already dead by then, sir, I"m positive about that," said Angua quickly. "We couldn"t have saved him."
"Helmclever said-" Vimes began, and Bashfullsson must have seen the panic rising in his eyes, because he grabbed both Vimes"s hands and spoke fast and urgently: "No! You didn"t kill him! You didn"t even touch him! You were afraid that if you did I"d say you"d used force, remember?"
"He dropped dead! How much force is that?" Vimes shouted. His voice echoed, and heads turned all across the cavern. "There was the symbol, wasn"t there?"
"It"s true that the ... creature tends to leave a, a signature on events, but you would have had to touch him! You did not! You did not raise a hand! I think you would have resisted even then! Resisted and won! Do you hear me? Calm down. Calm down. He died of fear and guilt. You must realize that."
"What reason did he have to feel guilty?"
"Every reason, for a dwarf. That mine bore down so heavily on him." The grag turned to Angua. "Sergeant, could you get the commander some water? It"s as pure in these pools as anywhere in the world. Well, it is if you pick one without a body floating in it."
"Y"know, you could have avoided that last sentence," said Vimes. He sat down on a rock. He could feel himself shaking.
"And then I got the damn thing here?" he managed.
"Yes, commander. And it got you here too, I suspect. Cheery says she saw you drop into churning water half a mile from where we are now. Even a champion swimmer wouldn"t have survived that." "I woke up on a beach-"
"It got you there. It swam your body for you." "But I was all knocked about!"
"Oh, it wasn"t your friend, commander. It needed to get you here in one piece. It didn"t have to be a good-looking piece. And then ... you disappointed it, commander. You disappointed it. Or, perhaps, impressed it. It"s hard to tell. You wouldn"t strike the helpless, you see. You resisted. I had the sergeant here bring you down because I was frightened that the struggle inside would rip your tendons from your bones."
"They were just frightened old men. .
"And so it appears to have let you go," said the dwarf. "I wonder why? Historically, anyone subject to the Summoning Dark dies insane."
Vimes reached up and took a mug of water from Angua. It was teeth-achingly cold and the best drink he"d ever tasted. And his mind worked fast, flying in emergency supplies of common sense, as human minds do, to construct a huge anchor in sanity and prove that what had happened hadn"t really happened and, if it had happened, hadn"t happened much.
It was all mystic, that"s what it was. Oh, it might all be true, but how could you ever tell? You had to stick to the things you can see. And you had to keep reminding yourself of that, too.
Yeah, that was it. What had really happened, eh? A few signs? Well, anything can look like you want it to if you"re wound up enough, yes? A sheep can look like a cow, right? Ha!
As for the rest, well, Bashfullsson seemed a decent lad, but you didn"t have to buy into his world view. Same with Mr Shine. That sort of thing could spook you.
He"d been wound up about Young Sam, and when he"d seen those devil guards of course he"d gone for them. He hadn"t been getting much sleep lately. It seemed like every hour brought some new problem. The mind played funny tricks. Surviving the underground river? Easy. He must have kept himself afloat. There were a lot of things the body would rather do than die.
There. .. some logical thought, and the mystic becomes ... well, straightforward. You can stop feeling like some puppet and become a man with a purpose once again.
He put down the empty mug and stood up - purposefully.
"I"m going to see how my men are," he announced.
"I"ll come with you," said Bashfullsson quickly.
"I think I need no assistance," lied Vimes, as coolly as he could.
"I"m sure you do not," said the dwarf. "But Captain Gud is a little nervous."
"He"ll be a lot nervous if I don"t like what I see," said Vimes.
"Yes. That"s why I"m coming with you," said Bashfullsson.
Vimes set off across the cavern a little faster than he felt was comfortable. The grag kept up by skipping at every other step.
"Don"t think you know me, Mr Bashfullsson," Vimes growled. "Don"t think I took pity on those bastards. Don"t think I was merciful. You just don"t kill the helpless. You just don"t."
"The dark guards seemed to have no trouble with the prospect," said Bashfullsson.
"Exactly!" said Vimes. "By the way, Mr Bashfullsson, what kind of dwarf doesn"t carry an axe?"
"Well, as a grag, my first resort, of course, is to my voice," said the grag. "The axe is nothing without the hand, and the hand is nothing without the mind. I"ve trained myself to think about axes."
"Sounds mystical to me," said Vimes.
"I suppose it would," said Bashfullsson. "Ah, here we are."
Here was the area that the newly arrived dwarfs had occupied. Very military, Vimes thought. A defensive square. You"re not sure who your enemies are. And neither am I.
The nearest dwarf regarded him with that slightly defiant, slightly uneasy look he"d come to recognize. Captain Gud straightened up.
Vimes looked over the dwarf"s shoulder, which was not hard to do
. There were Nobby and Fred Colon, and both of the trolls, and even Cheery, all sitting in a huddle.
"Are my men under arrest, captain?" he said.
"My orders are to detain everyone found here," said the captain. Vimes admired the flatness of the response. It meant: I am not interested in a dialogue at this time.
"What is your authority here, captain?" he said.
"My authority comes threefold: the Low King, mining law and sixty armed dwarfs," said Gud.
Bugger, thought Vimes. I forgot about mining law. This is a problem. I think I need to delegate. A good commander learns to delegate. Therefore I will delegate this problem to Captain Gud.
"That was a good answer, captain," he said, "and I respect it." In one movement he pushed past and headed for the watchmen. He stopped dead when he heard the sound of drawn metal behind him, raised his hands, and said, "Grag Bashfullsson, will you explain matters to the captain? I have stepped into his custody, not out of it. And this is not the time or place for rash action."
He walked on without waiting for a reply. Admittedly, banking on the fact that someone would get into trouble if they killed you would probably come under the heading of rash action, but he"d just have to live with that. Or, of course, not.
He hunkered down by Nobby and Colon.
"Sorry about this, Mister Vimes," said Fred. "We were waiting on the path with some horses and they just turned up. We showed "em our badges but they just did not want to know."
"Understood. And you, Cheery?"
"I thought it"d be best to stay together, sir," said Cheery earnestly. "Right. And you, Detr-" Vimes looked down, and felt the bile rise. Brick and Detritus both had chains on their legs.
"You let them shackle you?" he said.
"Well, it seemed to be gettin" all poll-itical, Mister Vimes," said Detritus. "But say der word and me an" Brick can have "em off, no trouble. Dey"re only field chains. My granny could"ve bust out of "em."
Vimes felt the anger rising, but put a lid on it. Right now, Detritus was being rather more sensible than his boss. "Don"t do that, not until I say so, he said. "Where are the grags?"
"They"re guarding them in another cave, sir," said Cheery. "And the miners. Sir, they said the Low King is on his way!"
"Good job it"s a big cave, otherwise it"d be getting crowded," said Vimes. He walked back to the captain and bent down.
"You chained up my sergeant?" he said.
"He"s a troll. This is Koom Valley," said the captain flatly.
"Except even I could bust out of chains that thin," said Vimes. He glanced up. Sally and Angua had regained their amour propre in their proper armour, and were watching Vimes carefully.
"Those two officers are a vampire and a werewolf," he said, still in the same level voice. "I know you know this, and you very wisely didn"t try to lay a finger on them. And Bashfullsson"s a grag. But you put my sergeant in weak chains that he could snap with a finger so"s you could kill him and say he was trying to escape. Don"t even think about denying it. I know a dirty trick when I see one. Shall I tell you what I"m going to do? I"m going to give you a chance to show brotherly love and let the trolls out, right now. And the others. Otherwise, unless you kill me, I"ll poison your future career to the very best of my ability. And don"t you dare kill me."
The captain eyeballed him, but it was a game Vimes had mastered a long time ago. Then the dwarf"s gaze fell on Vimes"s arm and he gave a groan and took a step back, raising his hand protectively.
"Yes! I"ll do it! Yes!"
"See you do," said Vimes, taken aback. Then he too looked down at the inside of his wrist.
"What the hell is this?" he said, turning to Bashfullsson.
"Ah, it left its mark on you, commander," said the grag cheerfully. "An exit wound, perhaps?"
On the soft underskin of Vimes"s wrist, the sign of the Summoning Dark blazed as a livid scar.
Vimes turned his arm this way and that. "It was real?" he said. "Yes. But it has gone, I"m sure. There"s a difference in you." Vimes rubbed the symbol. It didn"t hurt; it was simply raised, reddened skin. "It"s not going to come back, is it?" he said. "I doubt it"ll risk it, sir!" said Angua.
Vimes had opened his mouth to ask her what she meant by that piece of sarcasm when yet more dwarfs trotted into the cavern.
These were the tallest and broadest he"d seen. Unlike most dwarfs they wore simple mail shirts and carried one axe: one good, large and beautifully balanced axe. Other dwarfs bristled with up to a dozen weapons. These dwarfs bristled with one each, and they separated and spread out into the cavern with a purpose, covering lines of sight, guarding shadows and, in the case of four of them, taking up station behind Detritus and Brick.
When they finally clattered to a halt another group stepped out of the tunnel. Vimes recognized Rhys, Low King of the Dwarfs. He stopped, looked around, glanced briefly at Vimes, and summoned the captain to him.
"We have everything?"
"Sire?" said Gud nervously.
"You know what I mean, captain!"
"Yes, but we found nothing on any of them, sire! We searched them, and we"ve gone over the floor three times!" "Excuse me?" said Vimes.
"Commander Vimes!" said the King, turning and greeting Vimes like a long-lost son. "It is good to see you!"
"You"ve lost the bloody cube?" said Vimes. "After all this?"
"What cube would this be, commander?" said the King. Vimes had to admire his acting ability, at least.
"The one you"re looking for," he said. "The one dug up in my city. The one all this fuss is about. They wouldn"t throw it away because they"re grags, right? You can"t destroy words. It"s the worst crime there is. So they"d keep it with them."
The Low King looked at Captain Gud, who swallowed.
"It"s not in this cave," he muttered.
"They wouldn"t leave it anywhere else," said Vimes. "Not now! Someone might find it!"
The luckless captain turned to his king, seeking help there.
"There was panic everywhere when we arrived, sire!" he protested. "People running and screaming, fires everywhere! Complete chaos, sire! All we can be sure of is that no one got out! And we searched them all, sire. We searched them all!"
Vimes shut his eyes. Memories were fading fast as common sense walled up all those things that could not have happened, but he recalled the panicking grags, hunched over something. Had there been just a twinkle of blue and green specks?
Time for a long shot ...
"Corporal Nobbs, come here!" he said. "Let him through, captain. I insist!"
Gud didn"t protest. His spirit was broken. A reluctant Nobby was produced.
"Yes, Mister Vimes?" he said.
"Corporal Nobbs, did you obtain that precious thing I asked you to acquire?" said Vimes.
"Er, what would that be, sir?" said Nobby. Vimes"s heart leapt. Nobby"s face was an open book, albeit the kind that got banned in some countries.
"Nobby, there are times when I"ll put up with you mucking about. This isn"t one," he said. "Did you find the thing I asked you to look for?"
Nobby looked into his eyes. "I ... Oh? Oh. Oh, yes, sir," he said. "I
... yes ... we rushed in, you see, you see, you see, and people were running everywhere and there was, like, smoke. .: Nobby"s face glazed and his lips moved soundlessly in an agony of creation,"... an, an" I was bravely fightin" when what did I see but a sparkly thing rollin" and bein" kicked about, an" I thought, I jus" bet that"s the very same sparkly thing Mister Vimes very specific"ly told me to be lookin" out for ... an" here it is, all safe . .
He pulled a small, gently glittering cube from his pocket and held it out.
Vimes was faster than the King. His hand shot forward, closed over the cube, and was locked in a fist in the skin of a second.
"Well done, Corporal Nobbs, for obeying my orders so concisely," he said, and stifled a grin at Nobby"s impeccably dreadful salute.
"I believe that is dwarf property, Commander Vimes," said the King calmly.
Vimes opened his hand, palm up. The cube, only a couple of inches across, gave off little blue and green glints. The metal looked like bronze that had been corroded by time into a beautiful pattern of greens, blues and browns. It was a jewel.
He"s a king, thought Vimes. A king on a throne as wobbly as a rocking-horse. And he"s not nice. It"s not a job where the nice last long. He even got a spy into my Watch! I will not put my faith in kings. Right now, who do I trust?
One thing I do know is that no damn demon got inside my head, no matter what they say. I wouldn"t buy that even if they threw in a lifetime supply of cabbage! No one gets into my head but me! But you play the hand you"re dealt ...
"Take it," he said, opening his hand. On his wrist, the Summoning Dark glowed.
"I ask you to give it to me, commander," said Rhys.
"Take it," Vimes repeated. And he thought: Let"s see what you believe, shall we?
The King reached out, hesitated, and then slowly withdrew his hand.
"Or, perhaps," he said, as if the thought had just occurred to him, "it might be best to leave it in your celebrated custody, Commander Vimes."
"Yes. I want to hear what it has to say," said Vimes, closing his fist
again. "I want to know what was too dangerous to know."
"Indeed, so do I," said the king of the dwarfs. "We will take it to a place that can-"
"Look around you, sire!" snapped Vimes. "Dwarfs and trolls died here! They weren"t fighting, they were standing together! Look around you, the place looks like a godsdamn game board! Was this their testament? Then we listen to it here! In this place! At this time!"
"And supposing what it has to say is dreadful?" said the King. "Then we listen!"
"I am the King, Vimes! You have no authority here! This is not your city! You stand here defying me with a handful of men and your wife and child not ten miles away-"
Rhys stopped, and the echoes bounced back from distant caves, tumbling over themselves and dying into a silence that rang like iron. Out of the corner of his ear Vimes heard Sally say, "Oops ..." Bashfullsson hurried forward and whispered something in the King"s ear. The dwarf"s expression changed as only a politician"s face can, into careful amity.
I"m not going to do a thing, Vimes told himself. I"m just going to stand here.
"I do look forward to meeting Lady Sibyl again," said Rhys. "And your son, of course ..."
"Good. They"re staying in a house not ten miles away," said Vimes.
"Sir?" said Cheery.
"Please take Lance-Constable Humpeding with you and go down to the town, will you? Tell Lady Sybil I"m fine," Vimes added, not taking his eyes off the King. "Off you go, right now."
As they hurried away the King smiled, and looked around the cavern. He sighed. "Well, I cannot afford a row with Ankh-Morpork, not at the moment. Very well, commander. Do you know how to make it speak?"
"No. Don"t you?" This is a game, right? Vimes thought. A king wouldn"t take this kind of gobbyness from anyone, especially when he outnumbered them ten to one. A row? You"d just have to say we got caught in a storm in Koom Valley, which is such a treacherous place, as everyone agrees. He will be greatly missed and we will certainly hand over his body if it ever turns up ... But you"re not going to try that, are you, because you need me. You know something about this cavern, yes? And whatever"s going to happen, you want good of not-sharp-but-by-gods-he"s-straight Sam Vimes to tell the world ...
"No two cubes are alike," said Rhys. "It is usually a word, but it can be a breath, a sound, a temperature, a point in the world, the smell of rain. Anything. I understand that there are many cubes that have never spoken."
"Really?" said Vimes. "But this thing damn well gabbled. And whoever sent it out of the valley wanted it to be heard, so I doubt if it only starts talking when a virgin"s tear falls on it on a warm Tuesday in February. And this one started chatting very smartly to a man who didn"t know a word of dwarfish, too:
"But the speaker would want dwarfs to hear it, surely!" the King protested.
"It"s a two-thousand-year-old legend! Who knows who wanted what?" said Vimes. "What do you want?"
This was to Nobby, who had appeared beside him, looking with interest at the cube.
"How did tha- he get past my guards?" said the King.
"The Nobbs sidle," said Vimes, and as a couple of embarrassed guards dropped heavy hands on Nobby"s frail shoulders he added: "No. Leave him. Come on, Nobby, you say something to make this thing start speaking."
"Er, say something or it"ll be the worse for you?" Nobby suggested.
"Not a bad try," Vimes conceded. "A hundred years ago, sire, I doubt if anyone in Ankh-Morpork knew many words of dwarf or troll. Perhaps the message was intended for humans? There must have been a settlement down on the plain, with all those birds and fish to eat."
"Perhaps some more human words, then, er, Nobby?" said the King.
"Okay. Open, speak, say something, talk, spill the beans, play-"
"No, no, Mister Vimes, he"s doing it wrong!" Fred Colon shouted. "It was in the olden days, right? So it"d be old words, like ... er ... openeth!"
Vimes laughed as an idea struck. I wonder, he thought. It could be. This is not really about words, it"s about sounds. Noises .. .