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Legends 3 27
“Any old folk want cheerin’ up?”
It was taken for granted by both women that old people did not include them. A witch aged ninety-seven would not have included herself. Old people happened to other people.
“All fairly cheerful right now,” said Nanny.
“Maybe I could tell stories to the kiddies?”
Nanny nodded. Granny had done that once before, when the mood had briefly taken her. It had worked pretty well, as far as the children were concerned. They’d listened with openmouthed attention and apparent enjoyment to a traditional old folk legend. The problem had come when they’d gone home afterward and asked the meaning of words like “disemboweled.”
“I could sit in a rocking chair while I tell ’em,” Granny added. “That’s how it’s done, I recall. And I could make them some of my special treacle toffee apples. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Nanny nodded again, in a sort of horrified reverie. She realized that only she stood in the way of a wholesale rampage of niceness.
“Toffee,” she said. “Would that be the sort you did that shatters like glass, or that sort where our boy Pewsey had to have his mouth levered open with a spoon?”
“I reckon I know what I did wrong last time.”
“You know you and sugar don’t get along, Esme. Remember them all-day suckers you made?”
“They did last all day, Gytha.”
“Only ’cos our Pewsey couldn’t get it out of his little mouth until we pulled two of his teeth, Esme. You ought to stick to pickles. You and pickles goes well.”
“I’ve got to do something, Gytha. I can’t be an old grump all the time. I know! I’ll help at the Trials. Bound to be a lot that needs doing, eh?”
Nanny grinned inwardly. So that was it.
“Why, yes,” she said. “I’m sure Mrs. Earwig will be happy to tell you what to do,” she said. And more fool her if she does, she thought, because I can tell you’re planning something.
“I shall talk to her,” said Granny. “I’m sure there’s a million things I could do to help, if I set my mind to it.”
“And I’m sure you will,” said Nanny heartily. “I’ve a feelin’ you’re going to make a big difference.”
Granny started to rummage in the bag again.
“You are going to be along as well, aren’t you, Gytha?”
“Me?” said Nanny. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
* * *
Nanny got up especially early. If there was going to be any unpleasantness she wanted a ringside seat.
What there was was bunting. It was hanging from tree to tree in terrible brightly colored loops as she walked toward the Trials.
There was something oddly familiar about it, too. It should not technically be possible for anyone with a pair of scissors to be unable to cut out a triangle, but someone had managed it. And it was also obvious that the flags had been made from old clothes, painstakingly cut up. Nanny knew this because not many real flags have collars.
In the Trials field people were setting up stalls and falling over children. The committee were standing uncertainly under a tree, occasionally glancing up at a pink figure at the top of a very long ladder.
“She was here before it was light,” said Letice, as Nanny approached. “She said she’d been up all night making the flags.”
“Tell her about the cakes,” said Gammer Beavis darkly.
“She made cakes?” said Nanny. “But she can’t cook!”
The committee shuffled aside. A lot of the ladies contributed to the food for the Trials. It was a tradition and an informal competition in its own right. At the center of the spread of covered plates was a large platter piled high with … things, of indefinite color and shape. It looked as though a herd of small cows had eaten a lot of raisins and then been ill. They were Ur-cakes, prehistoric cakes, cakes of great weight and presence that had no place among the iced dainties.
“She’s never had the knack of it,” said Nanny weakly. “Has anyone tried one?”
“Hahaha,” said Gammer solemnly.
“Tough, are they?”
“You could beat a troll to death.”
“But she was so … sort of … proud of them,” said Letice. “And then there’s … the jam.”
It was a large pot. It seemed to be filled with solidified purple lava.
“Nice … color,” said Nanny. “Anyone tasted it?”
“We couldn’t get the spoon out,” said Gammer.
“Oh, I’m sure—”
“We only got it in with a hammer.”
“What’s she planning, Mrs. Ogg? She’s got a weak and vengeful nature,” said Letice. “You’re her friend,” she added, her tone suggesting that this was as much an accusation as a statement.
“I don’t know what she’s thinking, Mrs. Earwig.”
“I thought she was staying away.”
“She said she was going to take an interest and encourage the young ’uns.”
“She is planning something,” said Letice, darkly. “Those cakes are a plot to undermine my authority.”
“No, that’s how she always cooks,” said Nanny. “She just hasn’t got the knack.” Your authority, eh?
“She’s nearly finished the flags,” Gammer reported. “Now she’s going to try to make herself useful again.”
“Well … I suppose we could ask her to do the Lucky Dip.”
Nanny looked blank. “You mean where kids fish around in a big tub full of bran to see what they can pull out?”
“You’re going to let Granny Weatherwax do that?”
“Only she’s got a funny sense of humor, if you know what I mean.”
“Good morning to you all!”
It was Granny Weatherwax’s voice. Nanny Ogg had known it for most of her life. But it had that strange edge to it again. It sounded nice.
“We was wondering if you could supervise the bran tub, Miss Weatherwax.”
Nanny flinched. But Granny merely said, “Happy to, Mrs. Earwig. I can’t wait to see the expressions on their little faces as they pull out the goodies.”
Nor can I, Nanny thought.
When the others had scurried off she sidled up to her friend.
“Why’re you doing this?” she said.
“I really don’t know what you mean, Gytha.”
“I seen you face down terrible creatures, Esme. I once seen you catch a unicorn, for goodness’ sake. What’re you plannin’?”
“I still don’t know what you mean, Gytha.”
“Are you angry ’cos they won’t let you enter, and now you’re plannin’ horrible revenge?”
For a moment they both looked at the field. It was beginning to fill up. People were bowling for pigs and fighting on the greasy pole. The Lancre Volunteer Band was trying to play a medley of popular tunes, and it was only a pity that each musician was playing a different one. Small children were fighting. It was going to be a scorcher of a day, probably the last one of the year.
Their eyes were drawn to the roped-off square in the center of the field.
“Are you going to enter the Trials, Gytha?” said Granny.
“You never answered my question!”
“What question was that?”
Nanny decided not to hammer on a locked door. “Yes, I am going to have a go, as it happens,” she said.
“I certainly hope you win, then. I’d cheer you on, only that wouldn’t be fair to the others. I shall merge into the background and be as quiet as a little mouse.”
Nanny tried guile. Her face spread into a wide pink grin, and she nudged her friend.
“Right, right,” she said. “Only … you can tell me, right? I wouldn’t like to miss it when it happens. So if you could just give me a little signal when you’re going to do it, eh?”
“What’s it you’re referring to, Gytha?”
“Esme Weatherwax, sometimes I could really give you a bloody good slap!”
Nanny Ogg didn’t often swear, or at least use words beyond the boundaries of what the Lancastrians thought of as “colorful language.” She looked as if she habitually used bad words, and had just thought up a good one, but mostly witches are quite careful about what they say. You can never be sure what the words are going to do when they’re out of earshot. But now she swore under her breath and caused small brief fires to start in the dry grass.
This put her in just about the right frame of mind for the Cursing.
It was said that once upon a time this had been done on a living, breathing subject, at least at the start of the event, but that wasn’t right for a family day out and for several hundred years the Curses had been directed at Unlucky Charlie, who was, however you looked at it, nothing more than a scarecrow. And since curses are generally directed at the mind of the cursed, this presented a major problem, because even “May your straw go moldy and your carrot fall off” didn’t make much impression on a pumpkin. But points were given for general style and inventiveness.
There wasn’t much pressure for those in any case. Everyone knew what event counted, and it wasn’t Unlucky Charlie.
One year Granny Weatherwax had made the pumpkin explode. No one had ever worked out how she’d done it.
Someone would walk away at the end of today and everyone would know that person was the winner, whatever the points said. You could win the Witch with the Pointiest Hat prize and the broomstick dressage, but that was just for the audience. What counted was the Trick you’d been working on all summer.
Nanny had drawn last place, at number nineteen. A lot of witches had turned up this year. News of Granny Weatherwax’s withdrawal had got around, and nothing moves faster than news in the occult community, since it doesn’t just have to travel at ground level. Many pointy hats moved and nodded among the crowds.
Witches are among themselves generally as sociable as cats but, as also with cats, there are locations and times and neutral grounds where they meet at something like peace. And what was going on was a sort of slow, complicated dance.…
The witches walked around saying hello to one another, and rushing to meet newcomers, and innocent bystanders might have believed that here was a meeting of old friends. Which, at one level, it probably was. But Nanny watched through a witch’s eyes, and saw the subtle positioning, the careful weighing-up, the little changes of stance, the eye contact finely tuned by intensity and length.
And when a witch was in the arena, especially if she was comparatively unknown, all the others found some excuse to keep an eye on her, preferably without appearing to do so.
It was like watching cats. Cats spend a lot of time carefully eyeing one another. When they have to fight, that’s merely to rubber-stamp something that’s already been decided in their heads.
Nanny knew all this. And she also knew most of the witches to be kind (on the whole), gentle (to the meek), generous (to the deserving; the undeserving got more than they bargained for), and by and large quite dedicated to a life that really offered more kicks than kisses. Not one of them lived in a house made of confectionery, although some of the conscientious younger ones had experimented with various crispbreads. Even children who deserved it were not slammed into their ovens. Generally they did what they’d always done—smooth the passage of their neighbors into and out of the world, and help them over some of the nastier hurdles in between.
You needed to be a special kind of person to do that. You needed a special kind of ear, because you saw people in circumstances where they were inclined to tell you things, like where the money was buried or who the father was or how come they’d got a black eye again. And you needed a special kind of mouth, the sort that stayed shut. Keeping secrets made you powerful. Being powerful earned you respect. Respect was hard currency.
And within this sisterhood—except that it wasn’t a sisterhood, it was a loose assortment of chronic non-joiners; a group of witches wasn’t a coven, it was a small war—there was always this awareness of position. It had nothing to do with anything the other world thought of as status. Nothing was ever said. But if an elderly witch died the local witches would attend her funeral for a few last words, and then go solemnly home alone, with the little insistent thought at the back of their minds: I’ve moved up one.
And newcomers were watched very, very carefully.
“’Morning, Mrs. Ogg,” said a voice behind her. “I trust I find you well?”
“How’d’yer do, Mistress Shimmy,” said Nanny, turning. Her mental filing system threw up a card: Clarity Shimmy, lives over toward Cutshade with her old mum, takes snuff, good with animals. “How’s your mother keepin’?”
“We buried her last month, Mrs. Ogg.”
Nanny Ogg quite liked Clarity, because she didn’t see her very often.
“Oh dear…” she said.
“But I shall tell her you asked after her, anyway,” said Clarity. She glanced briefly toward the ring.
“Who’s the fat girl on now?” she asked. “Got a backside on her like a bowling ball on a short seesaw.”
“That’s Agnes Nitt.”
“That’s a good cursin’ voice she’s got there. You know you’ve been cursed with a voice like that.”
“Oh yes, she’s been blessed with a good voice for cursin’,” said Nanny politely. “Esme Weatherwax an’ me gave her a few tips,” she added.
Clarity’s head turned.
At the far edge of the field, a small pink shape sat alone behind the Lucky Dip. It did not seem to be drawing a big crowd.
Clarity leaned closer.
“What’s she … er … doing?”
“I don’t know,” said Nanny. “I think she’s decided to be nice about it.”
“Esme? Nice about it?”
“Er … yes,” said Nanny. It didn’t sound any better now she was telling someone.
Clarity stared at her. Nanny saw her make a little sign with her left hand, and then hurry off.
The pointy hats were bunching up now. There were little groups of three or four. You could see the points come together, cluster in animated conversation, and then open out again like a flower, and turn toward the distant blob of pinkness. Then a hat would leave that group and head off purposefully to another one, where the process would start all over again. It was a bit like watching very slow nuclear fission. There was a lot of excitement, and soon there would be an explosion.
Every so often someone would turn and look at Nanny, so she hurried away among the sideshows until she fetched up beside the stall of the dwarf Zakzak Stronginthearm, maker and purveyor of occult knickknackery to the more impressionable. He nodded at her cheerfully over the top of a display saying LUCKY HORSESHOES $2 EACH.
“Hello, Mrs. Ogg,” he said.
Nanny realized she was flustered.
“What’s lucky about ’em?” she said, picking up a horseshoe.
“Well, I get two dollars each for them,” said Stronginthearm.
“And that makes them lucky?”
“Lucky for me,” said Stronginthearm. “I expect you’ll be wanting one too, Mrs. Ogg? I’d have fetched along another box if I’d known they’d be so popular. Some of the ladies’ve bought two.”
There was an inflection to the word “ladies.”
“Witches have been buying lucky horsehoes?” said Nanny.
“Like there’s no tomorrow,” said Zakzak. He frowned for a moment. They had been witches, after all. “Er … there will be … won’t there?” he added.
“I’m very nearly certain of it,” said Nanny, which didn’t seem to comfort him.
“Suddenly been doing a roaring trade in protective herbs, too,” said Zakzak. And, being a dwarf, which meant that he’d see the Flood as a marvelous opportunity to sell towels, he added, “Can I interest you, Mrs. Ogg?”
Nanny shook her head. If trouble was going to come from the direction everyone had been looking, then a sprig of rue wasn’t going to be much help. A large oak tree?
??d be better, but only maybe.
The atmosphere was changing. The sky was a wide pale blue, but there was thunder on the horizons of the mind. The witches were uneasy and with so many in one place the nervousness was bouncing from one to another and, amplified, rebroadcasting itself to everyone. It meant that even ordinary people who thought that a rune was a dried plum were beginning to feel a deep, existential worry, the kind that causes you to snap at your kids and want a drink.
She peered through a gap between a couple of stalls. The pink figure was still sitting patiently, and a little crestfallen, behind the barrel. There was, as it were, a huge queue of no one at all.
Then Nanny scuttled from the cover of one tent to another until she could see the produce stand. It had already been doing a busy trade but there, forlorn in the middle of the cloth, was the pile of terrible cakes. And the jar of jam. Some wag had chalked up a sign beside it: GET THEE SPOON OUT OF THEE JAR, 3 TRIES FOR A PENNEY!!!
She thought she’d been careful to stay concealed, but she heard the straw rustle behind her. The committee had tracked her down.
“That’s your handwriting, isn’t it, Mrs. Earwig?” she said. “That’s cruel. That ain’t … nice.”
“We’ve decided you’re to go and talk to Miss Weatherwax,” said Letice. “She’s got to stop it.”
“She’s doing something to people’s heads! She’s come here to put the ’fluence on us, right? Everyone knows she does head magic. We can all feel it! She’s spoiling it for everyone!”
“She’s only sitting there,” said Nanny.
“Ah, yes, but how is she sitting there, we may ask?”
Nanny peered around the stall again.
“Well … like normal. You know … bent in the middle and the knees…”
Letice waved a finger sternly.
“Now you listen to me, Gytha Ogg—”
“If you want her to go away, you go and tell her!” snapped Nanny. “I’m fed up with—”
There was the piercing scream of a child.
The witches stared at one another, and then ran across the field to the Lucky Dip.
A small boy was writhing on the ground, sobbing.
It was Pewsey, Nanny’s youngest grandchild.