'Come on,' snapped Throat.
Detritus lumbered to his feet and took one last longing look at the stage.
Ruby blew him a kiss. Detritus blushed the colour of fresh-cut garnet.
Gaspode led the way out of the alley and through the dark hinterland of scrubby bushes and sandgrass behind the town.
'There's definitely something wrong with this place,' he muttered.
'It's different,' said Victor. 'What do you mean, wrong?'
Gaspode looked as though he was going to spit.
'Now, take me,' he said, ignoring the interruption. 'A dog. Never dreamed in my life except about chasing fings. And sex, of course. Suddenly I'm dreaming these dreams. In colour. Frightened the bloody life out of me. Never seen colour before, right? Dogs see in black-an'white, as I expect you knows, you bein' a great reader. Red comes as a nasty shock, I can tell you. You fink your dinner is just this white bone with shades of grey on it, suddenly it turns out for years you bin eatin' this gharsteley red and purple stuff.'
'What kind of dreams?' said Victor.
'It's bloody embarrassing,' said Gaspode. 'Like, in one there's this bridge that's been washed away and I have to run and bark a warning, right? And there's another where this house is on fire and I drag these kids out. And there's one where some kids are lost in these caves and I find 'em and go and lead the search party to them . . . and I hates kids. Seems I can't get me 'ead down these days without rescuin' people or savin' people or foilin' robbers or sunnink. I mean, I'm seven years old, I got hardpad, I got scurf, I got fleas somethin' dreadful, I don't need to be a 'ero every time I go to sleep.'
'Gosh. Isn't life interesting,' said Victor, 'when you see it from someone else's perspective . . . ?'
Gaspode rolled a crusted yellow eye skyward.
'Er. Where are we going?' said Victor.
'We're goin' to see a few Holy Wood folk,' said Gaspode. ' 'Cos there's something weird goin' on.'
'Up on the hill? I didn't know there were any people on the hill.'
'They ain't people,' said Gaspode.
A little twig fire burned on the slope of Holy Wood Hill. Victor had lit it because - well, because it was reassuring. Because it was the sort of thing humans did.
He found it necessary to remember he was human, and probably not crazy.
It wasn't that he'd been talking to a dog. People often talked to dogs. The same applied to the cat. And maybe even the rabbit. It was the conversation with the mouse and the duck that might be considered odd.
'You think we wanted to talk?' snapped the rabbit. 'One minute I'm just another rabbit and happy about it, next minute whazaam, I'm thinking. That's a major drawback if you're looking for happiness as a rabbit, let me tell you. You want grass and sex, not thoughts like “What's it all about, when you get right down to it?” '
'Yeah, but at least you eats grass,' Gaspode pointed out. 'At least grass don't talk back at you. The last thing you needs when you're hungry is a bloody ethical conundrum on your plate.'
'You think you've got problems,' said the cat, apparently reading his mind. 'I'm reduched to eating fish. You put a paw on your dinner, it shoutsh “Help!”, you got a major predicament.'
There was silence. They looked at Victor. So did the mouse. And the duck. The duck was looking particularly belligerent. It had probably heard about orange sauce.
'Yeah. Take us,' said the mouse. 'There's me, being chased by this,' it indicated the cat looming over it, 'around the kitchen. Scrabble, scrabble, squeak, panic. Then there's this sizzling noise in my head, I see a frying pan - you understand? A second ago I never knew what frying was, now I'm holding the handle, he comes around the corner, clang. Now he's staggering around saying “What hit me?” I say “Me.” That's when we both realize. We're talking.'
'Concheptualishing,' said the cat. It was a black cat, with white paws, ears like shotgun targets, and the scarred face of a cat that has already lived eight lives to the full.
'You tell him, kid,' said the mouse.
'Tell him what you did next,' said Gaspode.
'We came here,' said the cat.
'From Ankh-Morpork?' said Victor.
'That's nearly thirty miles!'
'Yeah, and take it from me,' said the cat, 'it's hard to hitch-hike when you's a cat.'
'See?' said Gaspode. 'It's happening all the time. All sorts are turnin' up in Holy Wood. They don't know why they've come, only that it's important to be here. An' they don't act like they do anywhere else in the world. I bin watchin'. Somethin' weird's goin' on.'
The duck quacked. There were words in there somewhere, but so mangled by the incompatibility of beak and larynx that Victor couldn't understand a word.
The animals, gave it a sympathetic audience.
'What's up, Duck?' said the rabbit.
'The duck says', translated Gaspode, 'that it's like a migratory thing. Just the same feelin' as a migration, he says.'
'Yeah? I didn't have far to come,' the rabbit volunteered. 'We lived on the dunes anyway.' It sighed. 'For three happy years and four miserable days,' it added.
A thought struck Victor. 'So you'd know about the old man on the beach?' he said.
'Oh, him. Yeah. Him. He was always coming up here.'
'What sort of person was he?' said Victor.
'Listen, buster, up to four days ago I had a vocabulary consisting of two verbs and one noun. What do you think I thought he was? All I know is, he didn't bother us. We probably thought he was a rock on legs, or something.'
Victor thought about the book in his pocket. Chanting and lighting fires. What sort of person did that?
'I don't know what's going on,' he said. 'I'd like to find out. Look, haven't you got names? I feel awkward, talking to people without names.'
'Only me,' said Gaspode. 'Bein' a dog. I'm named after the famous Gaspode, you know.'
'A kid called me Puss once,' said the cat doubtfully.
'I thought you had names in your own language,' said Victor. 'You know, like “Mighty Paws” or - or “Speedy Hunter”. Or something.'
He smiled encouragingly.
The others gave him a long blank stare.
'He reads books,' explained Gaspode. 'See, the thing is,' he added, scratching himself vigorously, 'animals don't normally bother with names. I mean, we know who we are.'
'Mind you, I like “Speedy Hunter”,' said the mouse.
'I was thinking that's more a cat's name,' said Victor, starting to sweat. 'Mice have friendly little names, like - like Squeak.'
'Squeak?' said the mouse, coldly.
The rabbit grinned.
'And, and I always thought rabbits were called Flopsy. Or Mr Thumpy,' Victor gabbled.
The rabbit stopped grinning and twitched its ears.
'Now look, pal-' it began.
'Y'know,' said Gaspode cheerfully, in an attempt to revive the conversation, 'I heard there's this legend where the first two people in the world named all the animals. Makes you fink, don't it.'
Victor pulled out the book to cover his embarrassment. Chanting and lighting fires. Three times a day.
'This old man-' he began.
'What's so important about him?' said the rabbit. 'He just used to come up on to the hill and make noises a couple of times every day. You could set your . . . your,' it hesitated. 'It was always the same times. Many times a day.'
'Three times. Three performances. Like a sort of theatre?' said Victor, running his finger down the page.
'We can't count up to three,' said the rabbit sourly. 'It goes one . . . many. Many times.' He glared at Victor. 'Mr Thumpy,' it said, in withering tones.
'And people from other places brought him fish,' said Victor. 'There's no-one else living near here. They must have come from miles away. People sailed miles just to bring him fish. It's as though he didn't want to eat fish out of the bay here. And it's teeming with them. When I went swimming I saw lobsters you wouldn't believe.'
'What did you name them?' said Mr Thumpy, who wasn't the kind of rabbit that forgot a grudge. 'Mr Snappy
'Yeah, I want this cleared up right now,' squeaked the mouse. 'Back home I was top mouse. I could lick any other mouse in the house. I want a proper name, kid. Anyone calls me Squeaky Boots', he looked up at Victor, 'is asking for a head shaped like a frying pan, do I make myself clear?'
The duck quacked at length.
'Hold it,' said Gaspode. 'The thing is, the duck says,' said Gaspode, 'that all this is part of the same thing. Humans and trolls and everything coming here. Animals suddenly talking. The duck says he thinks it's caused by something here.'
'How does a duck know that?' said Victor.
'Look, friend,' said the rabbit, 'when you can fly all the way across the sea and even end up finding the same bloody continent, you can start badmouthing ducks.'
'Oh,' said Victor. 'You mean mysterious animal senses, yes?'
They glared at him.
'Anyway, it's got to stop,' said Gaspode. 'All this cogitatin' and talkin' is all -right for you humans. You're used to it. Fing is, see, someone's got to find out what's causin' all this . . . '
They carried on glaring at him.
'Well,' he said, vaguely, 'maybe the book can help? The early bits are in some sort of ancient language. I can't-,' he paused. Wizards weren't welcomed in Holy Wood. It probably wasn't a good idea to mention the University, or his small part in it. 'That is,' he continued, choosing his words with care, 'I think I know someone in AnkhMorpork who might be able to read it. He's an animal, too. An ape.'
'How's he in the mysterious senses department?' said Gaspode.
'He's red hot on mysterious senses,' said Victor.
'In that case-' said the rabbit.
'Hold it,' said Gaspode. 'Someone's coming.'
A moving torch was visible coming up the hill. The duck rocketed clumsily into the sir and glided away. The others disappeared into the shadows. Only the dog didn't move.
'Aren't you going to make yourself scarce?' Victor hissed.
Gaspode raised an eyebrow.
'Woof?' he said.
The torch zig-zagged erratically among the scrub, like a firefly. Sometimes it would stop for a moment, and then wander away in some totally new direction. It was very bright.
'What is it?' said Victor.
Gaspode sniffed. 'Human,' he said. 'Female. Wearin' cheap scent.' His nose twitched again. 'It's called Passion's Plaything.' He sniffed again. 'Fresh laundry, no starch. Old shoes. Lot of studio make-up. She's been in Borgle's and had-' his nose twitched '-stoo. Not a big plate.'
'I suppose you can tell how tall she is, can you?' said Victor.
'She smells about five foot two, two and a half,' hazarded Gaspode.
'Oh, come on!'
'Walk a mile on these paws and call me a liar.'
Victor kicked sand over his little fire and strolled down the slope.
The light stopped moving as he approached it. For a moment he got a glimpse of a female figure clasping a shawl around her with one hand holding the torch high above her head. Then the light vanished so quickly it left blue and purple after-images dancing across his vision. Behind them, a small figure made a blacker shadow against the dusk.
It said, 'What are you doing in my . . . what am I . . . why are you in . . . where . . . ,' and then, as if it had finally got to grips with the situation, changed gear and in a much more familiar voice demanded, 'What are you doing here?'
'Ginger?' said Victor.
Victor paused. What were you supposed to say in circumstances like this?
'Er . . . ' he said. 'It's nice up here in the evenings, don't you think?'
She glared at Gaspode.
'That's that horrible dog who's been hanging round the studio, isn't it?' she said. 'I can't stand small dogs.'