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Hogfather

Hogfather

Page 36


'You're controlling children by their teeth,' said Susan. 'It does sound odd, doesn't it, when you put it like that,' said Teatime. 'But that's sympathetic magic for you. Is your grandfather going to try to rescue you, do you think? But no... I don't think he can. Not here, I think. I don't think that he can come here. So he sent you, did he?'

'Certainly not! He-' Susan stopped. Oh, he had, she told herself, feeling even more of a fool. He certainly had. He was learning about humans, all right. For a walking skeleton, he could be quite clever... But... how clever was Teatime? Just a bit too excited at his cleverness to realize that if DeathShe tried to stamp on the thought, just in case Teatime could read it in her eyes. 'I don't think he'll try,' she said. 'He's not as clever as you, Mister Teatime.'

'Teh-ah-tim-eh,' said Teatime, automatically. 'That's a shame.'

'Do you think You're going to get away with this?'

'Oh, dear. Do people really say that?' And suddenly Teatime was much closer. 'I've got away with it. No more Hogfather. And that's only the start. We'll keep the teeth coming in, of course. The possibilities---' There was a rumble like an avalanche, a long way off. The dormant Banjo had awakened, causing tremors on his lower slopes. His enormous hands, which had been resting on his knees, started to bunch. 'What's dis?' he said. Teatime stopped and, for a moment, looked puzzled. 'What's this what?'

'You said no more Hogfather,' said Banjo. He stood up, like a mountain range rising gently in the squeeze between colliding continents. His hands still stayed in the vicinity of his knees. Teatime stared at him and then glanced at Medium Dave. 'He does know what we've been doing, does he?' he said. 'You did tell him?' Medium Dave shrugged. 'Dere's got to be a Hogfather,' said Banjo. 'Dere's always a Hogfather.' Susan looked down. Grey blotches were speeding across the white marble. She was standing in a pool of grey. So was Banjo. And around Teatime the dots bounced and recoiled like wasps around a pot of jam. Looking for something, she thought. 'You don't believe in the Hogfather, do you?' said Teatime. 'A big boy like you?'

'Yeah,' said Banjo. 'So what's dis “no more Hogfather”?' Teatime pointed at Susan. 'She did it,' he said. 'She killed him.' The sheer playground effrontery of it shocked Susan. 'No I didn't,' she said. 'He---'

'Did!'

'Didn't!'

'Did!' Banjo's big bald head turned towards her. 'What's dis about the Hogfather?' he said. 'I don't think he's dead,' said Susan. 'But Teatime has made him very ill---'

'Who cares?' said Teatime, dancing away. 'When this is over, Banjo, you'll have as many presents as you want. Trust me!'

'Dere's got to be a Hogfather,' Banjo rumbled. 'Else dere's no Hogswatch.'

'It's just another solar festival,' said Teatime. 'It-' Medium Dave stood up. He had his hand on his sword. 'We're going, Teatime,' he said. 'Me and Banjo are going. I don't like any of this. I don't mind robbing, I don't mind thieving, but this isn't honest. Banjo? You come with me right now!'

'What's dis about no more Hogfather?' said Banjo. Teatime pointed to Susan.

'You grab her, Banjo. It's all her fault!' Banjo lumbered a few steps in Susan's direction, and then stopped. 'Our mam said no hittin' girls,' he rumbled. 'No pullin' m hair...' Teatime rolled his one good eye. Around his feet the greyness seemed to be boiling in the stone, following his feet as they moved. And it was around Banjo, too. Searching, Susan thought. It's looking for a way in. 'I think I know you, Teatime,' she said, as sweetly as she could for Banjo's sake. 'You're the mad kid they're all scared of, right?'

'Banjo?' snapped Teatime. 'I said grab her-'

'Our mam said----'

'The giggling excitable one even the bullies never touched because if they did he went insane and kicked and bit,' said Susan. 'The kid who didn't know the difference between chucking a stone at a cat and setting it on fire.' To her delight he glared at her. 'Shut up,' he said. 'I bet no one wanted to play with you,' said Susan. 'Not the kid with no friends. Kids know about a mind like yours even if they don't know the right words for it-'

'I said shut up! Get her, Banjo!' That was it. She could hear it in Teatime's voice. There was a touch of vibrato that hadn't been there before. 'The kind of little boy,' she said, watching his face, 'who looks up dolls' dresses...'

'I didn't!' Banjo looked worried. 'Our mam said-'

'Oh, to blazes with your mam!' snapped Teatime. There was a whisper of steel as Medium Dave drew his sword. 'What'd you say about our mam?' he whispered. Now he's having to concentrate on three people, Susan thought. 'I bet no one ever played with you,' she said. 'I bet there were things people had to hush up, eh?'

'Banjo! You do what I tell you!' Teatime screamed. The monstrous man was beside her now. She could see his face twisted in an agony of indecision. His enormous fists clenched and undenched and his lips moved as some kind of horrible debate raged in his head. 'Our... our mam... our mam said . . The grey marks flowed across the floor and formed a pool of shadow which grew darker and higher with astonishing speed. It towered over the three men, and grew a shape. 'Have you been a bad boy, you little perisher?' The huge woman towered over all three men. In one meaty hand it was holding a bundle of birch twigs as thick as a man's arm. The thing growled. Medium Dave looked up into the enormous face of Ma Lilywhite. Every pore was a pothole. Every brown tooth was a tombstone. 'You been letting him get into trouble, our Davey? You have, ain't you?' He backed away. 'No, Mum... no, Mum. . 'You need a good hiding, Banjo? You been playing with girls again?' Banjo sagged on to his knees, tears of misery rolling down his face. 'Sorry Mum sorry sorry Mum noooohhh Mum sorry Mum sorry sorry---' Then the figure turned to Medium Dave again.

The sword dropped out of his hand. His face seemed to melt. Medium Dave started to cry. 'No Mum no Mum no Mum nooooh Mum----' He gave a gurgle and collapsed, clutching his chest. And vanished. Teatime started to laugh. Susan tapped him on the shoulder and ' as he looked round, hit him as hard as she could across the face. That was the plan, at least. His hand moved faster and caught her wrist. It was like striking an iron bar. 'Oh, no,' he said. 'I don't think so.' Out of the corner of her eye Susan saw Banjo crawling across the floor to where his brother had been. Ma Lilywhite had vanished. 'This place gets into your head, doesn't it?' Teatime said. 'It pokes around to find out how to deal with you. Well, I'm in touch with my inner child.' He reached out with his other hand and grabbed her hair, pulling her head down. Susan screamed. 'And it's much more fun,' he whispered. Susan felt his grip lessen. There was a wet thump like a piece of steak hitting a slab and Teatime went past her, on his back. 'No pullin' girls' hair,' rumbled Banjo. 'That's bad.' Teatime bounced, up like an acrobat and steadied himself on the railing of the stairwell. Then he drew the sword. The blade was invisible in the bright light of the tower. 'It's true what the stories say, then,' he said. 'So thin you can't see it. I'm going to have such fun with it.' He waved it at them. 'So light.'

'You wouldn't dare use it. My grandfather will come after you,' said Susan, walking towards him. She saw one eye twitch. 'He comes after everyone. But I'll be ready for him,' said Teatime. 'He's very single-minded,' said Susan, closer now. 'Ah, a man after my own heart.'

'Could be, Mister Teatime.' He brought the sword around. She didn't even have time to duck. And she didn't even try to when he swung the sword back again. 'It doesn't work here,' she said, as he stared at it in astonishment. 'The blade doesn't exist here. There's no Death here!' She slapped him across the face. 'Hi!' she said brightly. 'I'm the inner babysitter!' She didn't punch. She just thrust out an arm, palm first, catching him under the chin and lifting him backwards over the rail. He somersaulted. She never knew how. He somehow managed to gain purchase on clear air. His free arm grabbed at hers, her feet came off the ground, and she was over the rail. She caught it with her other hand - although later she wondered if the rail hadn't managed to catch her instead. Teatime swung from her arm, staring upwards with a thoughtful expression. She saw him grip the sword hilt in his teeth and reach down to his belt The question 'Is this person mad enough to try to kill someone holding him?' was asked and answered very, very fast... She kicked down and hit him on the ear.

The cloth of her sleeve began to tear. Teatime tried to get another grip. She kicked again and the dress ripped. For an instant he held on to nothing and then, still wearing the expression of someone trying to solve a complex problem, he fell away, spinning, getting smaller... He hit the pile of teeth, sending them splashing across the marble. He jerked for a moment... And vanished. A hand like a bunch of bananas pulled Susan back over the rail. 'You can get into trouble, hittin' girls,' said Banjo. 'No playin' with girls.' There was a click behind them. The doors had swung open. Cold white mist rolled out across the floor. 'Our mam---' said Banjo, trying to work things out. 'Our mam was here-'

'Yes,' said Susan. 'But it weren't our mam, 'cos they buried our mam---'

'Yes.'

'We watched 'em fill in the grave and everything.'

'Yes,' said Susan, and added to herself, I bet you did. 'And where's our Davey gone?'

'Er... somewhere else, Banjo.'

'Somewhere nice?' said the huge man hesitantly. Susan grasped with relief the opportunity to tell the truth, or at least not definitely lie. 'It could be,' she said. 'Better'n here?'

'You never know. Some people would say the odds are in favour.' Banjo turned his pink piggy eyes on her. For a moment a thirty-five-year-old man looked out through the pink clouds of a five-year-old face. 'That's good,' he said. 'He'll be able to see our mam again.' This much conversation seemed to exhaust him. He sagged. 'I wanna go home,' he said. She stared at his big, stained face, shrugged hopelessly, pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and held it up to his mouth. 'Spit,' she commanded. He obeyed. She dabbed the handkerchief over the worst parts and then tucked it into his hand. 'Have a good blow,' she suggested, and then carefully leaned out of range until the echoes of the blast had died away. 'You can keep the hanky. Please,' she added, meaning it wholeheartedly. 'Now tuck your shirt in.'

'Yes, miss.'

'Now, go downstairs and sweep all the teeth out of the circle. Can you do that?' Banjo nodded. 'What can you do?' Susan prompted. Banjo concentrated. 'Sweep all the teeth out of the circle, miss.'

'Good. Off you go.' Susan watched him plod off, and then looked at the white doorway. She was sure the wizard had only got as far as the sixth lock. The room beyond the door was entirely white, and the mist that swirled at knee level deadened even the sound of her footsteps. All there was was a bed. It was a large fourposter, old and dusty. She thought it was unoccupied and then she saw the figure, lying among the mounds of pillows. It looked very much like a frail old lady in a mob cap.

The old woman turned her head and smiled at Susan. 'Hello, my dear.' Susan couldn't remember a grandmother. Her father's mother had died when she was young and the other side of the family... well, she'd never had a grandmother. But this was the sort she'd have wanted. The kind, the nasty realistic side of her mind said, that hardly ever existed. Susan thought she heard a child laugh. And another one. Somewhere almost out of hearing, children were at play. It was always a pleasant, lulling sound. Always provided, of course, you couldn't hear the actual words. 'No,' said Susan. 'Sorry, dear?' said the old lady. 'You're not the Tooth Fairy.' Oh, no... there was even a damn patchwork quilt... 'Oh, I am, dear.'

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