Chapter Thirteen: Foreigners

“No, I am not the Headless Horseman.” – Ichabod Lockhart


Ichabod proved a knowledgeable guide. A day of hard riding later, the travellers found themselves on what was no longer a path but could be described accurately as a real road. It might be the sort of road to give vertigo sufferers just cause to have a good lie down, but it was still a road, cut into the mountainside and making its way down in a series of sharp curves and hairpin bends. The further down they went, the more verdant the landscape, the thicker the trees edging down the sheer rock to the road. They stayed on the inner side, close to the rock wall; only Ponder, easily the best rider, dared make his careful way to the other edge. A simple, fragile fence made up of hammered wooden posts and two lengths of wire were all that stood between him and the drop, steep and sheer for hundreds of metres down to the next loop of the road. Ponder took in the view for a few seconds before shivering slightly and moving away. His horse appreciated it, taking him back to the other edge rather faster than he had intended.

Ichabod raised his eyebrows as Ponder’s horse careered to a halt. “Don’t see that every day, do you?” he said wryly. “A lesson to you all – be careful."

As he spoke, an unfamiliar sound made Ponder, Gytha and Rincewind suddenly turn. As Ponder watched, something rounded the corner – something moving, making a whirring noise, but with no apparent source of power. It was shiny and metallic with glass used in its construction, and Gytha’s mouth dropped open as it went smoothly past them and disappeared around the next bend. “What was that?” she demanded of everyone in particular. 

Harry paused. “That was a car,” he said. “They’re a Muggle invention.”

Ponder’s ears had pricked up. “Science,” he said, pronouncing the word carefully.

“Science?” Harry repeated, amused by the earnest expression on the younger wizard’s face. He wondered if he had ever been quite so eager to learn as his son seemed to be.

“Yes,” said Ponder, nodding his head. “It’s what your world has as well as magic, doesn’t it? Hex said…”

“That’s right,” Harry told him. They had all stopped moving when the car went by, and the horses were shifting from foot to foot. “Cars… well, they’re not magic. I suppose you could call them science, or technology maybe. They have engines inside them that… well, make them go. Like I said, Muggles use them.”

“Muggles?” Ponder repeated, and if Harry hadn’t already made Draco rein in the horse, he would have most definitely done it at that point. 

He decided to explain it step by step. “Ponder, you know in Ankh-Morpork? Commander Vimes knows you’re a wizard, doesn’t he? Lord Vetinari, too?”

“Of course.” Ponder sounded puzzled.

“Is it because of their rank, or does everyone in the city know you’re a wizard?”

“I don’t think I know everyone in the city.”

“No, that’s not it. I guess what I’m trying to say,” Harry floundered, having never had to explain this concept before, “is that in our world, wizards keep magic secret.”

“Muggles are people who aren’t wizards or witches,” Hermione put in. Draco apparently felt the discussion beneath him. “And we try to make sure they don’t know we exist.”

“But why?” asked Gytha, sounding frankly bewildered. “Who do people go to if they need help?”

“Muggles have other ways of getting help. Doctors, and people,” said Harry vaguely. “It’s all science. But the point is, if we meet anyone on our way…”

“We don’t do magic,” finished Ichabod, who had been listening to this with quiet amusement. “We don’t make any mention of the fact we’re different.”

“Not even to other witches or wizards?” asked Rincewind. He was almost in a good mood. He’d have got through much less shoe-leather if people hadn’t know he was a wizard. Somehow it made you a magnet for trouble.

“Only if you’re sure they’re a witch or wizard,” said Ichabod firmly. “And take off your hats, all of you.”

Ponder’s eyes widened. Rincewind was already taking off his, though, and Gytha didn’t have one yet because of her being a student, so in the end he gave in. But instead of stowing it into his pack as Rincewind had done, Ponder carefully positioned the battered wizard’s hat on the horse’s head. Ichabod raised his eyebrows.

“I’m a foreigner,” explained Ponder simply, and Ichabod grinned.

“You’re getting the hang of this.”

* * *

At about lunchtime, a few more cars and several bullock-carts had gone past, as had whole families on foot, apparently carrying all their possessions in bundles tied to sticks. Ponder, his eyes and ears open for the new sights and sounds coming his way from every direction, was the first to see the building. “Oh, my,” was all he said; having halted his horse at the edge of the road again, he was looking out over the wooden-post fence.

From the viewpoint of the others, it looked like any other building, built of ramshackle wood and stone, with large windows and a tin roof. But from where Ponder was sitting, he could see down towards the valley floor and sheer side of the mountain, and had a clear view of the massive stone brick pillars rising from the steep incline so the building on the top was just at road level.

Ichabod glanced across. The building was a shop, with a crooked wooden sign on the top and a small chalkboard leaning against the wall. It was covered in curling Devanagari script and numbers – a price list. A plastic table and large, faded red-and-white umbrella completed the scene. “Anyone want something to eat?” he asked.

“Anyone got any money?” asked Harry with the exact same inflection, and quickly had them all turning out their pockets. Once the little heap of money had been counted, the total was duly recorded as being one gold Galleon, three Sickles, four Ankh-Morpork half-dollars and one pound and seventy-five pence, pound sterling.

“Ah,” said Ichabod, and turned out his pockets. Some raggedy, faded red notes appeared, and he smiled. “Couple of hundred rupees, but it’ll be enough.” He paused and added, “You can pay me in the Ankh-Morpork stuff. Not many people can say they’ve got money from another world. Right. Tea, anyone?”

Most of them answered in the affirmative, but Gytha looked uncomfortable. “Any chance of coffee?” she asked nervously.

Ichabod shook his head. “Up here? Not on your life. You’ve got a choice between tea, and… tea, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t trust anything that hasn’t been boiled.”

Gytha nodded, and Ichabod ventured across to the little shop. The owner, an olive-skinned, barefoot man wearing a straw hat, appeared to ask him what he wanted, but it was in a language they didn’t understand.

“I think that’s Hindi,” Hermione whispered. “It’s the main language in India.”

“Sounds like Klatchian to me,” muttered Rincewind, who was quite possibly the best linguist among them.

Ichabod replied in the same language, and a few minutes later, he carried across a tray of plastic cups filled with tea. All of them except Ponder dismounted to drink it, and walked up and down, shaking out their feet and legs. The closer they got to the valley, the more agreeable the climate. It wasn’t snowing any more, but it was still a cold grey day and banks of clouds were visible even below them.  Harry found the tea warming. When he blew on it gently to cool it, he could see his breath.

As he stood there, contemplating the view some distance away from the others, Gytha came up to him. He opened his mouth to make a simple greeting, but she cut across him. “Do you think Ponder’s stupid?” she demanded.

Harry reeled a little at her forthrightness. “I never…” he began, but she cut across him again.

“Before, when you were explaining about the,” she fumbled for the word, “car. Did you think Ponder was stupid?

“Gytha! Of course not!”

She smiled grimly. “I was just thinking,” she said, “he thinks you’re a hero in your world. But you don’t know anything about him.”

“Gytha, why are you doing this?” Harry asked. He really wanted to know.

“Because,” she hesitated, “he wouldn’t tell you this, and someone ought to.” She was building up a head of steam again. “You know, he designed and built Hex from scratch. He’s the only wizard ever to have split the thaum. And he was about my age when he did it. He may not be quite like you…” She trailed off.

Harry waited to make sure she really had finished before he spoke. “Gytha, I appreciate your honesty.” Off her look, he continued, “No, I really do. But please understand that I wasn’t aware of Ponder’s existence until about a week ago. I think I can safely say allowances ought to be made.”

She was silent, so he went on: “I do not think he’s stupid. Far from it. But he’s different, and rightly so! It means that perhaps I understand some things that he doesn’t. It works both ways. He’s my son, he looks like me, but he’s grown up in another world, and there are things he knows about that I don’t. It’s to be expected; he’s done without me for his entire life, and from what you say, he’s done well. What happens from here on in is entirely up to him.” Harry stopped, then rubbed at his eyes. “Why am I telling you this?”

“You had to tell someone,” said Gytha reasonably.

“Right. Yes.” He was still rubbing at his eyes. “Oh… is it time to go?”

It was. The cups of tea had been drunk and discarded. Ichabod was chivvying along the people and Ponder was doing the same for the horses. Groaning, Harry swung himself up behind Draco and they were off again.

* * *

They rode into the city as night fell. At first, it was hard to tell there was civilisation on the way –  maybe a few more people on the roads, and maybe the roads themselves were flatter and better suited to wheels than hooves – but as they rounded the last loop, they found themselves riding almost on a level, past pedestrians and yet more bullock-carts and huge, multicoloured trucks. Harry wondered why six people on horseback weren’t attracting any attention, but he soon realised that theirs wasn’t the most unorthodox method of transport by a long shot. As well as cars and pedestrians (who seemed quite comfortable walking in the middle of the road), he saw rickshaws and scooters and donkeys pulling laden carts with small boys perched at the top and single-seater bicycles laden with five or more people. Every time Harry looked up, there were more people but it seemed to be getting darker, and he realised with a jolt that this close to the Equator, twilight was a few brief, fleeting minutes, nothing like the long evenings in Derbyshire.

By the sides of the road, fires were being lit. Some were for their heat and light, but judging from the spices in the air, a considerable few were for cooking. Harry saw people casually reach into the flames with bare hands, and grab blackened and charred sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and other things Harry hadn’t seen before. Despite the searing heat, the food was eaten with every semblance of pleasure, and the food vendors were doing good business. Behind them, in the shadows of the firelight, Harry saw the stalls and shops, some made of wood or brick, but most mere blankets or canvas on a framework and sporting single, bare lightbulbs. Harry wished they had more time to simply take in the scene. Even riding at a walking pace, he missed looking at everything he would have liked to see. The air seemed thick with heat and purple with smoke, the swaying motion of the horse was lulling and the darkness was still getting thicker, and at length Harry felt himself slipping into a deliciously dreamlike state of mind.

He was jerked into full consciousness some time later. With a start, he realised the traffic had become less, and the street seemed almost completely pedestrianised. There were no more wandering cattle or small stalls – they were in a proper shopping street now. Harry was almost disappointed.

“We’re almost there,” Ichabod said, his voice carrying. “You see the hill in front of us?”

They all nodded. They certainly did see it; the road split into two at this point, one tree-lined branch heading straight ahead, and the other branch also heading straight ahead but on a steep incline.

 “Well, that’s where we’re going. Try not to tread on anyone.”

As they climbed slowly up, the horses doing their best to keep pace with each other, Harry continued taking everything in. The people and the shops continued up the hill as if it weren’t there – Harry suspected that the residents were so used to it that it might as well not be. A low stone wall prevented anyone from falling off the edge onto the other branch of the road below, and as Harry looked, he saw a plaque set into it at about eye-level, or at least where eye-level would have been had he been walking. Nevertheless, he leaned over to try and read what it said, with some success:



August 15th 1947

“Shimla,” he said out loud.

Ichabod glanced up at him. “Oh, you know.”

“Know what?” Harry asked.

“Okay… so you don’t know.” Ichabod grinned. “The name of the place. Shimla. Northern capital of India.”

“India has two capitals?” asked Hermione. Evidently this piece of information was new to her as well, which pleased Harry somewhat. If she didn’t know, he had every excuse not to know either.

“Not exactly, but it did once. When the British were here…”

One or two things clicked into place in Harry’s brain. You couldn’t be Minister of Magic for any length of time without picking up a few things, and certain matters were coming back to him now. It was to do with the British Empire, and the Commonwealth, and there, that was it – that was what had been bothering him about this place…

“New Delhi was much too hot during the summer months,” Ichabod continued. “So, every March, the entire government used to load themselves onto trains and make their way up here.” He let go of the reins for a moment and motioned at the city. “It never gets properly hot here – at least, not the way it does in the south – so they made another capital for themselves.”

“That’s why it looks like home!” Harry put in, unable to stop himself. “The shops, the pavements…”

As they reached the crest of the hill, Harry was proven right. Carefully positioned at the very top was a small, stone building that could have been any English town hall. It had a large space of white flagstones in front of it, and people were thronging there as they did everywhere else, only with no fear of being run over. The little shops and stalls looked semi-permanent, and with no cooking fires. It probably wasn’t a good idea so close to the city officials, Harry mused. The town hall behind them had men dressed in uniforms patrolling in front of it – either soldiers or policemen. But they didn’t seem to have any objection to the company of horses, and after a moment, Harry realised why. Up here, there were no cars or carts, but there were some bicycles and there most definitely were horses. Unlike the wizards’ horses, however, they looked more like Shetland ponies, and the only riders seemed to be children and lightly built adults. There weren’t any demarcation lines, but nevertheless, they were following a fixed path, and they all seemed to be very interested in something at the far end of the square.

“What’s going on over there?” Hermione wondered.

Ichabod seemed hesitant, not replying for a few seconds. But after a moment, he smiled, and looked straight at Ponder. “You can go,” he said. “You’re the best rider. Just ride across, not too fast, not too slow, keep your head, and come back and tell your friends about it.”

 Ponder looked puzzled, but he went. As per instructions, his horse wasn’t quite walking and wasn’t quite trotting, and after several seconds, Harry saw him ride in a circle. For a few seconds, he was moving at right angles to them, apparently prevented from going further away, and a minute later, he had ridden back.

“What is it?” Hermione demanded.

Ponder laughed, but his eyes were wide. “I thought we were in the valley!” he exclaimed.

“Not quite.” Ichabod smiled. “All right, you lot – go and see, but walk.”

Harry slipped off from behind Draco and walked across with some difficulty. The road seemed to be rocking back and forth with the swaying motion of a horse. Nevertheless, he managed to get there without major incident, and in the last rays of daylight, he saw what Ponder had seen. At the edge of the square, the ground simply fell away. Harry peered downwards, but he couldn’t quite see the bottom. Thousands of feet below, it was hidden by the coming darkness. In front of them were other mountains, summits wreathed in mists. It was as if the city had suddenly come to a stop in mid-air and beyond this point, nothingness. All there was in between them and the drop was another small, wooden fence. Harry suddenly realised that Ponder, on horseback, would have been higher than the level of the barrier. As he watched, some of the children on ponies rode by, clearly exhilarated by their proximity to the abyss. They trotted past and were gone, riding in circles only to come back again. Harry could feel the compulsion; after all, the view was spectacular. He only wished he didn’t feel as if the bottom was about to fall out of his brain.

Hermione seemed the most startled of all of them. “I thought we were in the valley!” she said, unconsciously echoing Ponder’s words of a few moments before.

“We are, sort of,” said Ichabod. “But the valleys are themselves higher than the next set of mountains. If you go that way” – he pointed north – “you reach the foothills of the Himalayas, which is where we came from. If you go the other way” – he moved his arm so it was pointing south – “you’ll eventually come out of the mountains altogether, going further and further down until you reach the Deccan. The plains,” he clarified for Gytha, who looked confused for a moment.

“It’s like home,” she said after a while. “Lancre is high up among the Ramtops, so if you’re going towards Ankh-Morpork, you have to go down and down until you reach the Sto plains. It’s the same thing.”

“Indeed,” said Ichabod, smiling at her sage manner of speaking. “And now, I believe we have to see the Ministry?”

“Oh, yes,” said Harry dazedly. The interesting journey had almost made him forget its objective.

“Then come on.”

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