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Chapter Twenty

Leaping on to the back of a one-and-a-half-ton Perfectly Normal Beast migrating through your world at a thundering thirty miles an hour is not as easy as it might at first seem. Certainly it is not as easy as the Lamuellan hunters made it seem, and Arthur Dent was prepared to discover that this might turn out to be the difficult bit.

What he hadn't been prepared to discover, however, was how difficult it was even getting to the difficult bit. It was the bit that was supposed to be the easy bit which turned out to be practically impossible.

They couldn't even catch the attention of a single animal. The Perfectly Normal Beasts were so intent on working up a good thunder with their hooves, heads down shoulders forward, back legs pounding the ground into porridge that it would have taken something not merely startling but actually geological to disturb them.

The sheer amount of thundering and pending was, in the end, more than Arthur and Ford could deal with. After they had spent nearly two hours prancing about doing increasingly foolish things with a medium-sized floral patterned bath towel, they had not managed to get even one of the great beasts thundering and pounding past them to do so much as glance casually in their direction.

They were within three feet of the horizontal avalanche of sweating bodies. To have been much nearer would have been to risk instant death, chrono-logic or no chrono-logic. Arthur had seen what remained of any Perfectly Normal Beast which, as the result of a clumsy mis-throw by a young and inexperienced Lamuellan hunter, got speared while still thundering and pounding with the herd.

One stumble was all it took. No prior appointment with death on Stavromula Beta, wherever the hell Stavromula Beta was, would save you or anybody else from the thunderous, mangling pounding of those hooves.

At last, Arthur and Ford staggered back. They sat down, exhausted and defeated, and started to criticise each other's technique with the towel.

`You've got to flick it more,' complained Ford. `You need more follow-through from the elbow if you're going to get those blasted creatures to notice anything at all.'

`Follow-through?' protested Arthur. `You need more suppleness in the wrist.'

`You need more after-flourish,' countered Ford.

`You need a bigger towel.'

`You need,' said another voice, `a pikka bird.'

`You what?'

The voice had come from behind them. They turned, and there, standing behind them in the early morning sun, was Old Thrashbarg.

`To attract the attention of a Perfectly Normal Beast,' he said, as he walked forward towards them, `you need a pikka bird. Like this.'

From under the rough, cassocky robe-like thing he wore he drew a small pikka bird. It sat restlessly on Old Thrashbarg's hand and peered intently at Bob knows what darting around about three feet six inches in front of it.

Ford instantly went into the sort of alert crouch he liked to do when he wasn't quite sure what was going on or what he ought to do about it. He waved his arms around very slowly in what he hoped was an ominous manner.

`Who is this?' he hissed.

`It's just Old Thrashbarg,' said Arthur quietly. `And I wouldn't bother with all the fancy movements. He's just as experienced a bluffer as you are. You could end up dancing around each other all day.'

`The bird,' hissed Ford again. `What's the bird?'

`It's just a bird!' said Arthur impatiently. `It's like any other bird. It lays eggs and goes ark at things you can't see. Or kar or rit or something.'

`Have you seen one lay eggs?' said Ford, suspiciously.

`For heaven's sake of course I have,' said Arthur. `And I've eaten hundreds of them. Make rather a good omelette. The secret is little cubes of cold butter and then whipping it lightly with...'

`I don't want a zarking recipe,' said Ford. `I just want to be sure it's a real bird and not some kind of multi-dimensional cybernightmare.'

He slowly stood up from his crouched position and started to brush himself down. He was still watching the bird, though.

`So,' said Old Thrashbarg to Arthur. `Is it written that Bob shall once more take back unto himself the benediction of his once-given sandwich maker?'

Ford almost went back into his crouch.

`It's all right,' muttered Arthur, `he always talks like that.' Aloud, he said, `Ah, venerable Thrashbarg. Um, yes. I'm afraid I think I'm going to have to be popping off now. But young Drimple, my apprentice, will be a fine sandwich maker in my stead. He has the aptitude, a deep love of sandwiches, and the skills he has acquired so far, though rudimentary as yet, will, in time mature and, er, well, I think he'll work out OK is what I'm trying to say.'

Old Thrashbarg regarded him gravely. His old grey eyes moved sadly. He held his arms aloft, one still carrying a bobbing pikka bird, the other his staff.

`O Sandwich Maker from Bob!' he pronounced. He paused, furrowed his brow, and sighed as he closed his eyes in pious contemplation. `Life,' he said, `will be a very great deal less weird without you!'

Arthur was stunned.

`Do you know,' he said, `I think that's the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me?'

`Can we get on, please?' said Ford.

Something was already happening. The presence of the pikka bird at the end of Thrashbarg's outstretched arm was sending tremors of interest through the thundering herd. The odd head flicked momentarily in their direction. Arthur began to remember some of the Perfectly Normal Beast hunts he had witnessed. He recalled that as well as the hunter-matadors brandishing their capes there were always others standing behind them holding pikka birds. He had always assumed that, like him, they had just come along to watch.

Old Thrashbarg moved forward, a little closer to the rolling herd. Some of the Beasts were now tossing their heads back with interest at the sight of the pikka bird.

Old Thrashbarg's outstretched arms were trembling.

Only the pikka bird itself seemed to show no interest in what was going on. A few anonymous molecules of air nowhere in particular engaged all of its perky attention.

`Now!' exclaimed Old Thrashbarg at last. `Now you may work them with the towel!'

Arthur advanced with Ford's towel, moving the way the hunter-matadors did, with a kind of elegant strut that did not come at all naturally to him. But now he knew what to do and that it was right. He brandished and flicked the towel a few times, to be ready for the moment, and then he watched.

Some distance away he spotted the Beast he wanted. Head down, it was galloping towards him, right on the very edge of the herd. Old Thrashbarg switched the bird, the Beast looked up, tossed its head, and then, just as its head was coming down again, Arthur flourished the towel in the Beast's line of sight. It tossed its head again in bemusement, and its eyes followed the movement of the towel.

He had got the Beast's attention.

From that moment on, it seemed the most natural thing to coax and draw the animal towards him. Its head was up, cocked slightly to one side. It was slowing to a canter and then a trot. A few seconds later the huge thing was standing there amongst them, snorting, panting, sweating, and sniffing excitedly at the pikka bird, which appeared not to have noticed its arrival at all. With strange sort of sweeping movements of his arms Old Thrashbarg kept the pikka bird in front of the Beast, but always out of its reach and always downwards. With strange sort of sweeping movements of the towel, Arthur kept drawing the Beast's attention this way and that --- always downwards.

`I don't think I've ever seen anything quite so stupid in my life,' muttered Ford to himself.

At last, the Beast dropped, bemused but docile, to its knees.

`Go!' whispered Old Thrashbarg urgently, to Ford. `Go! Go now!'

Ford leapt up on to the great creature's back, scrabbling amongst its thick knotty fur for purchase, grasping great handfuls of the stuff to hold him steady once he was in position.

`Now, Sandwich Maker! Go!' He performed some elaborate sign and ritual handshake which Arthur couldn't quite get the hang of because Old Thrashbarg had obviously made it up on the spur of the moment, then he pushed Arthur forward. Taking a deep breath, he clambered up behind Ford on to the great, hot, heaving back of the beast and held on tight. Huge muscles the size of sea lions rippled and flexed beneath him.

Old Thrashbarg held the bird suddenly aloft. The Beast's head swivelled up to follow it. Thrashbarg pushed upwards and upwards repeatedly with his arms and with the pikka bird; and slowly, heavily the Perfectly Normal Beast lurched up off its knees and stood, at last, swaying slightly. Its two riders held on fiercely and nervously.

Arthur gazed out over the sea of hurtling animals, straining in an attempt to see where it was they were going, but there was nothing but heat haze.

`Can you see anything?' he said to Ford.

`No.' Ford twisted round to glance back, trying to see if there was any clue as to where they had come from. Still, nothing.

Arthur shouted down at Thrashbarg.

`Do you know where they come from?' he called. `Or where they're going?'

`The domain of the King!' shouted Old Thrashbarg back.

`King?' shouted Arthur in surprise. `What King?' The Perfectly Normal Beast was swaying and rocking restlessly under him.

`What do you mean, what King?' shouted Old Thrashbarg. `The King.'

`It's just that you never mentioned a King,' shouted Arthur back, in some consternation.

`What?' shouted Old Thrashbarg. The thrumming of a thousand hooves was very hard to hear over, and the old man was concentrating on what he was doing.

Still holding the bird aloft, he led the Beast slowly round till it was once more parallel with the motion of its great herd. He moved forward. The Beast followed. He moved forward again. The Beast followed again. At last, the Beast was lumbering forward with a little momentum.

`I said you never mentioned a King!' shouted Arthur again.

`I didn't say a King,' shouted Old Thrashbarg, `I said the King.'

He drew back his arm and then hurled it forward with all his strength, casting the pikka bird up into the air above the herd. This seemed to catch the pikka bird completely by surprise as it had obviously not been paying any attention at all to what was going on. It took it a moment or two to work out what was happening, then it unfurled its little wings, spread them out, and flew.

`Go!' shouted Thrashbarg. `Go and meet your destiny, Sandwich Maker!'

Arthur wasn't so sure about wanting to meet his destiny as such. He just wanted to get to wherever it was they were going so he could get back off this creature again. He didn't feel at all safe up there. The Beast was gathering speed as it followed in the wake of the pikka bird. And then it was in at the fringes of the great tide of animals, and in a moment or two, with its head down, the pikka bird forgotten, it was running with the herd again and rapidly approaching the point at which the herd was vanishing into thin air. Arthur and Ford held on to the great monster for dear life, surrounded on all sides by hurtling mountains of bodies.

`Go! Ride that Beast!' shouted Thrashbarg. His distant voice reverberated faintly in their ears. `Ride that Perfectly Normal Beast! Ride it, ride it!'

Ford shouted in Arthur's ear, `Where did he say we were going?'

`He said something about a King,' shouted Arthur in return, holding on desperately.

`What King?'

`That's what I said. He just said the King.'

`I didn't know there was a the King,' shouted Ford.

`Nor did I,' shouted Arthur back.

`Except of course for the King,' shouted Ford. `And I don't suppose he meant him.'

`What King?' shouted Arthur.

The point of exit was almost upon them. Just ahead of them, Perfectly Normal Beasts were galloping into nothingness and vanishing.

`What do you mean, what King?' shouted Ford. `I don't know what King. I'm only saying that he couldn't possibly mean the King, so I don't know what he means.'

`Ford, I don't know what you're talking about.'

`So?' said Ford. Then with a sudden rush, the stars came on, turned and twisted around their heads, and then, just as suddenly, turned off again.


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