Exclusive First Read: 'The Shepherd's Crown' By Terry Pratchett
The late Terry Pratchett wrote more than 40 books about the Discworld, a magical flat land borne through space on the backs of four elephants and a giant cosmic turtle. The Discworld is full of memorable characters: Werewolf constables, cunning rulers, snooty vampires, con men, trolls and dwarves and mystery-sausage sellers. But the most memorable of all are the witches — not green-skinned and cackling, but tough, practical women who use "headology" rather than spellcasting, and whose mission is to help people "when life is on the edge."
The young witch Tiffany Aching returns in Pratchett's last Discworld novel,The Shepherd's Crown. Readers first met Tiffany in 2003'sThe Wee Free Men, when she faced down the wicked Queen of the Elves to rescue her baby brother. Now, the Queen (she's really not very nice at all) is back — dealing with a rebellion among oppressed goblins — great change is coming to the Disc, and it may fall to Tiffany to restore the balance.
In this scene, the Queen begins to realize that her power is fading.The Shepherd's Crownwill be published on Sept. 1.
The Queen of the Elves sat in state on a diamond throne in her palace, surrounded by her courtiers, foundlings and lost boys, and creeping creatures with no names — all the detritus of the fairy folk.
She had chosen to sparkle today. The everlasting sunlight shining through the exquisitely carved stone windows had been pitched exactly to strike the tiny gems on her wings so that delicate rainbows of light danced around the audience chamber as she moved. The courtiers lounging about the place in lace-trimmed velvet and feathers were almost, but not quite, as beautifully dressed.
Her eyes slid sideways, ever alert to the actions of her lords and ladies. Was that Lord Lankin over there in the corner with Lord Mustardseed? Whispering ... And where was Lord Peaseblossom? One day, she thought, she would have his head on a pole! She didn't trust him at all, and his glamour had been strong of late, almost as glorious as her own. Or, she reminded herself bitterly, as glorious as her own had been ... before.
Before that young witch — Tiffany Aching — had come into Fairyland and had humiliated her.
Lately she had felt shivers between their two worlds, understood that things were shifting, the edges becoming more blurred. Softer. A few of the stronger elves had even been slipping through from time to time for a little mischief. Perhaps soon she could lead the elves on a proper raiding party ... fetch another child to play with. Have her revenge on the Aching witch. The Queen smiled at the thought, licking her lips in anticipation of the fun ahead.
But for now there was other troubling news to deal with. Goblins! Mere worms, who should be grateful if an elvish lord or lady even looked their way, but who were now foolishly refusing to do her bidding. She would show them all, she thought. Lords Lankin, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom — they would all see how powerful she was again. They would see her strike down this goblin filth ...
But where was Peaseblossom?
The goblin prisoner was brought into the audience chamber under guard. The whole effect was visually stunning, the goblin thought sourly. Exactly as a fairy court would look in a human child's storybook. Until you looked at the faces and realized that there was something not quite right about the eyes and the expressions of the beautiful creatures in the scene.
The Queen considered the goblin for a while, resting her fine-boned chin on the fingers of one exquisitely thin hand. Her alabaster brow furrowed.
"You, goblin, you call yourself Of the Dew the Sunlight, I believe. You and your kind have long enjoyed the protection of this court. Yet I hear talk of rebellion. A refusal to do my bidding. Before I hand you over to my guards for their ... amusement, tell me why this is."
Her melodious voice was rich with charm as the words were spoken, but the goblin seemed unmoved. He should have fallen to his knees and begged for her forgiveness, hypnotized by the power of the Queen's glamour, but instead he stood his ground stockily and grinned at her. Grinned at the Queen!
"Well, Queenie, it's like this, you see. Goblins is now treated as upright citizens in human world. Humans say goblins useful. We likes being useful. We gets paid for being useful and finding out things and making things."
The Queen's beautiful visage slipped and she glared at the cheeky creature in front of her.
"That's impossible," she shouted. "You goblins are the dregs, everyone knows that!"
"Ah ha!" laughed the goblin. "Queenie not so clever as she thinks. Goblins riding on hog's back now. Goblins know how to drive the iron horses."
There was a shiver in the court as the goblin uttered the word "iron" and the magical glimmer dimmed. The Queen's dress changed color from silver gossamer to bloodred velvet and her blond ringlets turned into straight, raven-black locks. Her courtiers followed suit as the pastel silks and lace made way for leather breeches, scarlet sashes, and scraps of fur over woad-covered torsos. Elven stone knives were drawn and sharp teeth bared.
The little goblin did not flinch.
"I don't believe you," said the Queen. "After all, you are just a goblin."
"Just a goblin, yess, your queeniness," he said quietly. "A goblin what understands iron and steel. Steel as goes round and round and chuffs. Takes people to faraway places. And a goblin what is a citizen of Ankh-Morpork, and you know what that means, my lady. The dark one there gets upset when his citizens get killed."
"You are lying," said the Queen. "The Lord Vetinari would not care what happens to you. You goblins always lie, Of the Dew the Sunlight."
"Not my name any more. I am now Of the Lathe the Swarf," said the goblin proudly.
"Swarf," said the Queen. "What is that?"
"Itty bits of iron, they is, Queenie," said the goblin, his eyes hardening. "Of the Lathe the Swarf no liar. You talks to me like that again, your majisteriousness, I opens my pockets. Then we sees what swarf is!"
The Queen drew back, her eyes fixed on the goblin's hands hovering near the pockets of his dark blue jacket, wooden toggles fastening it over his skinny chest.
"You dare threaten me?" she said. "Here in my own realm, you worm? When I could shrivel your heart within you with just a word? Or have you dropped where you stand?" She gestured to the guards standing ready with their crossbows aimed at the goblin.
"I is no worm for you, Queenie. I have the swarf. Tiny bits of steel that can float in the air. But I is here to bring news. A warning. Of the Lathe the Swarf still has fancy for the old days. I likes to see humans squirm. Likes to see you fairy folk stirring things up, I does. Some goblins thinks as I does, but not so many now. Some goblins almost not goblins now. Almost human. I don't likes it but they says the times they is a-changing. The money is good, see, Queenie."
"Money?" sneered the Queen. "I give you goblins money, you wor — " She paused as she saw the goblin's hand move into his pocket. Could the horrible little creature really be bringing iron into her world? Iron — a terrible substance for any of the fairy folk. Painful. Destructive. It blinded, deafened, made an elf feel more alone than any human could ever feel. She finished her sentence with gritted teeth. "Worthy creature."
"Gold as melts away as sun rises," said the goblin. "They — we — gets real money now. I just wants goblins to remain goblins. Goblins with status. Respect. Not pushed around no more by you or anyone else." He glared at Peaseblossom, who had suddenly stepped to the side of the Queen.
"I don't believe you," said the Queen.
"Your funeral, Queenie," said the goblin. "Don't believe me. Go to gate... . You sees for yourself. World has changed, Queenie."
And the Queen thought, Changed, yes. She had felt the tremors, known something momentous was afoot, but not known exactly what... .
"Bind this maggot's arms behind him," she ordered her guards, pointing at the goblin. "I wish to see if he speaks true. And he will ride with us ..." She smiled. "If he speaks false, we will tear out his tongue."
FromThe Shepherd's Crownby Terry Pratchett. Copyright 2015 by Terry Pratchett. Excerpted with permission of HarperCollins Children's Books.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.