Thief of Time Page 2

'I have come a long way,' said the figure. 'They say you are the best in the world.'

'What? Me? I've only delivered one!' said Miss Ogg, now looking hunted. 'Biddy Spective is a lot more experienced than me! And old Minnie Forthwright! Mrs Weaver was going to be my first solo, 'cos she's built like a wardro-'

'I do beg your pardon. I will not trespass further on your time.' The stranger retreated into the flake-speckled shadows. 'Hello?' said Miss Ogg. 'Hello?' But there was nothing there, except footprints. Which stopped in the middle of the snow- covered path... Tick There was a hammering on the door. Mrs Ogg put down the child that had been sitting on her knee and went and raised the latch. A dark figure stood outlined against the warm summer evening sky, and there was something strange about its shoulders. 'Mrs Ogg? You are married now?'

'Yep. Twice,' said Mrs Ogg cheerfully. 'What can I do for y-'

'You must come at once. It's very urgent.'

'I didn't know anyone was-'

'I have come a long way,' said the figure. Mrs Ogg paused. There was something in the way he had pronounced long. And now she could see that the whiteness on the cloak was snow, melting fast. Faint memory stirred. 'Well, now,' she said, because she'd learned a lot in the last twenty years or so, 'that's as may be, and I'll always do the best I can, ask anyone. But I wouldn't say I'm the best. Always learnin' something new, that's me.'

'Oh. In that case I will call at a more convenient... moment.'

'Why've you got snow on-?' But, without ever quite vanishing, the stranger was no longer present... Tick There was a hammering on the door. Nanny Ogg carefully put down her brandy nightcap and stared at the wall for a moment. Now a lifetime of edge witchery[4] had honed senses that most people never really knew they had, and something in her head went 'click'. On the hob the kettle for her hot-water bottle was just coming to the boil. She laid down her pipe, got up and opened the door on this springtime midnight. 'You've come a long way, I'm thinking,' she said, showing no surprise at the dark figure. 'That is true, Mrs Ogg.'

'Everyone who knows me calls me Nanny.' She looked down at the melting snow dripping off the cloak. It hadn't snowed up here for a month. 'And it's urgent, I expect?' she said, as memory unrolled. 'Indeed.'

'And now you got to say, “You must come at once.”'

'You must come at once.'

'Well, now,' she said. 'I'd say, yes, I'm a pretty good midwife, though I do say it myself. I've seen hundreds into the world. Even trolls, which is no errand for the inexperienced. I know birthing backwards and forwards and damn near sideways at times. Always been ready to learn something new, though.' She looked down modestly. 'I wouldn't say I'm the best,' she said, 'but I can't think of anyone better, I have to say.'

'You must leave with me now.'

'Oh, I must, must I?' said Nanny Ogg. 'Yes!' An edge witch thinks fast, because edges can shift so quickly. And she learns to tell when a mythology is unfolding, and when the best you can do is put yourself in its path and run to keep up. 'I'll just go and get-'

'There is no time.'

'But I can't just walk right out and-'

'Now.' Nanny reached behind the door for her birthing bag, always kept there for just such occasions as this, full of the things she knew she'd want and a few of the things she always prayed she'd never need. 'Right,' she said. She left. Tick The kettle was just boiling when Nanny walked back into her kitchen. She stared at it for a moment and then moved it off the fire. There was still a drop of brandy left in the glass by her chair. She drained that, then refilled the glass to the brim from the bottle. She picked up her pipe. The bowl was still warm. She pulled on it, and the coals crackled. Then she took something out of her bag, which was now a good deal emptier, and, brandy glass in her hand, sat down to look at it. 'Well,' she said at last. 'That was... very unusual...' Tick Death watched the image fade. A few flakes of snow that had blown out of the mirror had already melted on the floor, but there was still a whiff of pipe smoke in the air. AH, I SEE, he said. A BIRTHING, IN STRANGE CIRCUMSTANCES. BUT IS THAT WHAT THE PROBLEM WAS OR WAS THAT WHAT THE SOLUTION WILL BE? SQUEAK, said the Death of Rats. QUITE SO, said Death. YOU MAY VERY WELL BE RIGHT. I DO KNOW THAT THE MIDWIFE WILL NEVER TELL ME. The Death of Rats looked surprised. SQUEAK? Death smiled. DEATH? ASKING AFTER THE LIFE OF A CHILD? NO. SHE WOULD NOT . ''scuse me,' said the raven, 'but how come Miss Ogg became Mrs Ogg? Sounds like a bit of a rural arrangement, if you catch my meaning.'

WITCHES ARE MATRILINEAL, said Death. THEY FIND IT MUCH EASIER TO CHANGE MEN THAN TO CHANGE NAMES. He went back to his desk and opened a drawer. There was a thick book there, bound in night. On the cover, where a book like this might otherwise say 'Our Wedding' or , Acme Photo Album', it said 'MEMORIES'. Death turned the heavy pages carefully. Some of the memories escaped as he did so, forming brief pictures in the air before the page turned, and they went flying and fading into the distant, dark corners of the room. There were snatches of sound, too, of laughter, tears, screams and for some reason a brief burst of xylophone music, which caused him to pause for a moment. An immortal has a great deal to remember. Sometimes its better to put things where they will be safe. One ancient memory, brown and cracking round the edges, lingered in the air over the desk. It showed five figures, four on horseback, one in a chariot, all apparently riding out of a thunderstorm. The horses were at a flat gallop. There was a lot of smoke and flame and general excitement. AH, THE OLD DAYS, said Death. BEFORE THERE WAS THIS FASHION FOR HAVING A SOLO CAREER. SQUEAK? the Death of Rats enquired. OH, YES, said Death. ONCE THERE WERE FIVE OF US. FIVE HORSEMEN. BUT YOU KNOW HOW THINGS ARE. THERE'S ALWAYS A ROW. CREATIVE DISAGREEMENTS, ROOMS BEING TRASHED, THAT SORT OF THING. He sighed. AND THINGS SAID THAT PERHAPS SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SAID. He turned a few more pages and sighed again. When you needed an ally, and you were Death, on whom could you absolutely rely? His thoughtful gaze fell on the teddy bear mug. Of course, there was always family. Yes. He'd promised not to do this again, but he'd never got the hang of promises. He got up and went back to the mirror. There was not a lot of time. Things in the mirror were closer than they appeared. There was a slithering noise, a breathless moment of silence, and a crash like a bag of skittles being dropped. The Death of Rats winced. The raven took off hurriedly. HELP ME UP, PLEASE, said a voice from the shadows. AND THEN PLEASE CLEAN UP THE DAMN BUTTER.

Tick This desk was a field of galaxies. Things twinkled. There were complex wheels and spirals, brilliant against the blackness... Jeremy always liked the moment when he had a clock in pieces, with every wheel and spring carefully laid out on the black velvet cloth in front of him. It was like looking at Time, dismantled, controllable, every part of it understood... He wished his life was like that. It would be nice to reduce it to bits, spread them all out on the table, clean and oil them properly and put them together so that they coiled and spun as they ought to. But sometimes it seemed that the life of Jeremy had been assembled by a not very competent craftsman, who had allowed a number of small but important things to go ping into the corners of the room. He wished he liked people more, but somehow he could never get on with them. He never knew what to say. If life was a party, he wasn't even in the kitchen. He envied the people who made it as far as the kitchen. There would probably be the remains of the dip to eat, and a bottle or two of cheap wine that someone had brought along that'd probably be okay if you took out the drowned cigarette stubs. There might even be a girl in the kitchen, although Jeremy knew the limits of his imagination. But Jeremy never even got an invitation. Clocks, now... clocks were different. He knew what made clocks tick. His full name was Jeremy Clockson, and that was no accident. He'd been a member of the Guild of Clockmakers since he was a few days old, and everyone knew what that meant. It meant his life had begun in a basket, on a doorstep. Everyone knew how it worked. All the Guilds took in the foundlings that arrived with the morning milk. It was an ancient form of charity, and there were far worse fates. The orphans got a life, and an upbringing of a sort, and a trade, and a future, and a name. Many a fine lady or master craftsman or city dignitary had a telltale surname like Ludd or Doughy or Pune or Clockson. They'd been named after trade heroes or patron deities, and this turned them into a family, of a sort. The older ones remembered where they came from, and at Hogswatch they were free with donations of food and clothing to the various younger brothers and sisters of the basket. It wasn't perfect, but, then, what is? So Jeremy had grown up healthy, and rather strange, and with a gift for his adoptive craft that almost made up for every other personal endowment that he did not possess. The shop bell rang. He sighed and put down his eyeglass. He didn't rush, though. There was a lot to look at in the shop. Sometimes he even had to cough to attract the customer's attention. That being said, sometimes Jeremy had to cough to attract the attention of his reflection when he was shaving. Jeremy tried to be an interesting person. The trouble was that he was the kind of person who, having decided to be an interesting person, would first of all try to find a book called How to Be An Interesting Person and then see whether there were any courses available. He was

puzzled that people seemed to think he was a boring conversationalist. Why, he could talk about all kinds of clock. Mechanical clocks, magical clocks, water clocks, fire clocks, floral clocks, candle clocks, sand clocks, cuckoo clocks, the rare Hershebian beetle clocks... But for some reason he always ran out of listeners before he ran out of clocks. He stepped out into his shop, and stopped. 'Oh... I'm so sorry to have kept you,' he said. It was a woman. And two trolls had taken up positions just inside the door. Their dark glasses and huge ill-fitting black suits put them down as people who put people down. One of them cracked his knuckles when he saw Jeremy looking at him. The woman was wrapped in an enormous and expensive white fur coat, which might have explained the trolls. Long black hair cascaded over her shoulders, and her face was made up so pale that it was almost the shade of the coat. She was ... quite attractive, thought Jeremy, who was admittedly no judge whatsoever, but it was a monochromatic beauty. He wondered if she was a zombie. There were quite a few in the city now, and the prudent ones had taken it with them when they died, and probably could afford a coat like that. 'A beetle clock?' she said. She had turned away from the glass dome. 'Oh, er, yes... The Hershebian lawyer beetle has a very consistent daily routine,' said Jeremy. 'I, er, only keep it for, um, interest.'

'How very ... organic,' said the woman. She stared at him as if he was another kind of beetle. 'We are Myria LeJean. Lady Myria LeJean.' Jeremy obediently held out a hand. Patient men at the Clockmakers' Guild had spent a long time teaching him how to Relate to People before giving it up in despair, but some things had stuck. Her ladyship looked at the waiting hand. Finally, one of the trolls lumbered over. 'Der lady does not shake hands,' it said, in a reverberating whisper. 'She are not a tactile kinda person.'

'Oh?' said Jeremy. 'But enough of this, perhaps,' said Lady LeJean, stepping back. 'You make clocks, and we-' There was a jingling noise from Jeremy's shirt pocket. He pulled out a large watch. 'If that was chiming the hour, you are fast,' said the woman. 'Er ... um ... no... you might find it a good idea to, um, put your hands over your ears...' It was three o'clock. And every clock struck it at once. Cuckoos cuckooed, the hour pins fell out of the candle clock, the water clocks gurgled and seesawed as the buckets emptied, bells clanged, gongs banged, chimes tinkled and the Hershebian lawyer beetle turned a somersault.

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