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Legends 3

Legends 3

Legends 3 28


  Her stomach turned to ice. She snatched him up, and glared into Granny’s face.

  “What have you done to him, you—” she began.

  “Don’twannadolly! Don’twannadolly! Wannasoljer! Wannawanna-wannaSOLJER!”

  Now Nanny looked down at the rag doll in Pewsey’s sticky hand, and the expression of affronted tearful rage on such of his face as could be seen around his screaming mouth—

  “OiwannawannaSOLJER!”

  —and then at the other witches, and at Granny Weatherwax’s face, and felt the horrible cold shame welling up from her boots.

  “I said he could put it back and have another go,” said Granny meekly. “But he just wouldn’t listen.”

  “—wannawannaSOL—”

  “Pewsey Ogg, if you don’t shut up right this minute Nanny will—” Nanny Ogg began, and dredged up the nastiest punishment she could think of: “Nanny won’t give you a sweetie ever again!”

  Pewsey closed his mouth, stunned into silence by this unimaginable threat. Then, to Nanny’s horror, Letice Earwig drew herself up and said, “Miss Weatherwax, we would prefer it if you left.”

  “Am I being a bother?” said Granny. “I hope I’m not being a bother. I don’t want to be a bother. He just took a lucky dip and—”

  “You’re … upsetting people.”

  Any minute now, Nanny thought. Any minute now she’s going to raise her head and narrow her eyes and if Letice doesn’t take two steps backward she’ll be a lot tougher than me.

  “I can’t stay and watch?” Granny said quietly.

  “I know your game,” said Letice. “You’re planning to spoil it, aren’t you? You can’t stand the thought of being beaten, so you’re intending something nasty.”

  Three steps back, Nanny thought. Else there won’t anything left but bones. Any minute now …

  “Oh, I wouldn’t like anyone to think I was spoiling anything,” said Granny. She sighed, and stood up. “I’ll be off home…”

  “No you won’t!” snapped Nanny Ogg, pushing her back down onto the chair. “What do you think of this, Beryl Dismass? And you, Letty Parkin?”

  “They’re all—” Letice began.

  “I weren’t talking to you!”

  The witches behind Mrs. Earwig avoided Nanny’s gaze.

  “Well, it’s not that … I mean, we don’t think…” began Beryl awkwardly. “That is … I’ve always had a lot of respect for … but … well, it is for everyone…”

  Her voice trailed off. Letice looked triumphant.

  “Really? I think we had better be going after all, then,” said Nanny sourly. “I don’t like the comp’ny in these parts.” She looked around. “Agnes? You give me a hand to get Granny home…”

  “I really don’t need…” Granny began, but the other two each took an arm and gently propelled her through the crowd, which parted to let them through and turned to watch them go.

  “Probably the best for all concerned, in the circumstances,” said Letice. Several of the witches tried not to look at her face.

  * * *

  There were scraps of material all over the floor in Granny’s kitchen, and gouts of congealed jam had dripped off the edge of the table and formed an immovable mound on the floor. The jam saucepan had been left in the stone sink to soak, although it was clear that the iron would rust away before the jam ever softened.

  There was a row of empty pickle jars beside them.

  Granny sat down and folded her hands in her lap.

  “Want a cup of tea, Esme?” said Nanny Ogg.

  “No, dear, thank you. You get on back to the Trials. Don’t you worry about me,” said Granny.

  “You sure?”

  “I’ll just sit here quiet. Don’t you worry.”

  “I’m not going back!” Agnes hissed, as they left. “I don’t like the way Letice smiles…”

  “You once told me you didn’t like the way Esme frowns,” said Nanny.

  “Yes, but you can trust a frown. Er … you don’t think she’s losing it, do you?”

  “No one’ll be able to find it if she has,” said Nanny. “No, you come on back with me. I’m sure she’s planning … something.” I wish the hell I knew what it is, she thought. I’m not sure I can take any more wailing.

  * * *

  She could feel the mounting tension before they reached the field. Of course, there was always tension, that was part of the Trials, but this kind had a sour, unpleasant taste. The sideshows were still going on but ordinary folk were leaving, spooked by sensations they couldn’t put their finger on which nevertheless had them under their thumb. As for the witches themselves, they had that look worn by actors about two minutes from the end of a horror movie, when they know the monster is about to make its final leap and now it’s only a matter of which door.

  Letice was surrounded by witches. Nanny could hear raised voices. She nudged another witch, who was watching gloomily.

  “What’s happening, Winnie?”

  “Oh, Reena Trump made a pig’s ear of her piece and her friends say she ought to have another go because she was so nervous.”

  “That’s a shame.”

  “And Virago Johnson ran off ’cos her weather spell went wrong.”

  “Left under a bit of a cloud, did she?”

  “And I was all thumbs when I had a go. You could be in with a chance, Gytha.”

  “Oh, I’ve never been one for prizes, Winnie, you know me. It’s the fun of taking part that counts.”

  The other witch gave her a skewed look.

  “You almost made that sound believable,” she said.

  Gammer Beavis hurried over. “On you go, Gytha,” she said. “Do your best, eh? The only contender so far is Mrs. Weavitt and her whistling frog, and it wasn’t as if it could even carry a tune. Poor thing was a bundle of nerves.”

  Nanny Ogg shrugged, and walked out into the roped-off area. Somewhere in the distance someone was having hysterics, punctuated by an occasional worried whistle.

  Unlike the magic of wizards, the magic of witches did not usually involve the application of much raw power. The difference is between hammers and leyers. Witches generally tried to find the small point where a little change made a lot of result. To make an avalanche you can either shake the mountain, or maybe you can just find exactly the right place to drop a snowflake.

  This year Nanny had been idly working on the Man of Straw. It was an ideal trick for her. It got a laugh, it was a bit suggestive, it was a lot easier than it looked but showed she was joining in, and it was unlikely to win.

  Damn! She’d been relying on that frog to beat her. She’d heard it whistling quite beautifully on the summer evenings.

  She concentrated.

  Pieces of straw rustled through the stubble. All she had to do was use the little bits of wind that drifted across the field, allowed to move here and here, spiral up and—

  She tried to stop her hands from shaking. She’d done this a hundred times, she could tie the damn stuff in knots by now. She kept seeing the face of Esme Weatherwax, and the way she’d just sat there, looking puzzled and hurt, while for a few seconds Nanny had been ready to kill—

  For a moment she managed to get the legs right, and a suggestion of arms and head. There was a smattering of applause from the watchers. Then an errant eddy caught the thing before she could concentrate on its first step, and it spun down, just a lot of useless straw.

  She made some frantic gestures to get it to rise again. It flopped about, tangled itself, and lay still.

  There was a bit more applause, nervous and sporadic.

  “Sorry … don’t seem to be able to get the hang of it today,” she muttered, walking off the field.

  The judges went into a huddle.

  “I reckon that frog did really well,” said Nanny, more loudly than was necessary.

  The wind, so contrary a little while ago, blew sharper now. What might be called the psychic darkness of the event was being enhanced by real twilight.

 
The shadow of the bonfire loomed on the far side of the field. No one as yet had the heart to light it. Almost all of the non-witches had gone home. Anything good about the day had long drained away.

  The circle of judges broke up and Mrs. Earwig advanced on the nervous crowd, her smile only slightly waxen at the corners.

  “Well, what a difficult decision it has been,” she said brightly. “But what a marvelous turnout, too! It really has been a most tricky choice—”

  Between me and a frog that lost its whistle and got its foot stuck in its banjo, thought Nanny. She looked sidelong at the faces of her sister witches. She’d known some of them for sixty years. If she’d ever read books, she’d have been able to read the faces just like one.

  “We all know who won, Mrs. Earwig,” she said, interrupting the flow.

  “What do you mean, Mrs. Ogg?”

  “There’s not a witch here who could get her mind right today,” said Nanny. “And most of ’em have bought lucky charms, too. Witches? Buying lucky charms?” Several women stared at the ground.

  “I don’t know why everyone seems so afraid of Miss Weatherwax! I certainly am not! You think she’s put a spell on you, then?”

  “A pretty sharp one, by the feel of it,” said Nanny. “Look, Mrs. Earwig, no one’s won, not with the stuff we’ve managed today. We all know it. So let’s just all go home, eh?”

  “Certainly not! I paid ten dollars for this cup and I mean to present it—”

  The dying leaves shivered on the trees.

  The witches drew together.

  Branches rattled.

  “It’s the wind,” said Nanny Ogg. “That’s all…”

  And then Granny was simply there. It was as if they’d just not noticed that she’d been there all the time. She had the knack of fading out of the foreground.

  “I jus’ thought I’d come to see who won,” she said. “Join in the applause, and so on…”

  Letice advanced on her, wild with rage.

  “Have you been getting into people’s heads?” she shrieked.

  “An’ how could I do that, Mrs. Earwig?” said Granny meekly. “Past all them lucky charms?”

  “You’re lying!”

  Nanny Ogg heard the indrawn breaths, and hers was loudest. Witches lived by their words.

  “I don’t lie, Mrs. Earwig.”

  “Do you deny that you set out to ruin my day?”

  Some of the witches at the edge of the crowd started to back away.

  “I’ll grant my jam ain’t to everyone’s taste but I never—” Granny began, in a modest little tone.

  “You’ve been putting a ’fluence on everyone!”

  “—I just set out to help, you can ask anyone—”

  “You did! Admit it!” Mrs. Earwig’s voice was as shrill as a gull’s.

  “—and I certainly didn’t do any—”

  Granny’s head turned as the slap came.

  For the moment no one breathed, no one moved.

  She lifted a hand slowly and rubbed her cheek.

  “You know you could have done it easily!”

  It seemed to Nanny that Letice’s scream echoed off the mountains.

  The cup dropped from her hands and crunched on the stubble.

  Then the tableau unfroze. A couple of her sister witches stepped forward, put their hands on Letice’s shoulders, and she was pulled, gently and unprotesting, away.

  Everyone else waited to see what Granny Weatherwax would do. She raised her head.

  “I hope Mrs. Earwig is all right,” she said. “She seemed a bit … distraught.”

  There was silence. Nanny picked up the abandoned cup and tapped it with a forefinger.

  “Hmm,” she said. “Just plated, I reckon. If she paid ten dollars for it, the poor woman was robbed.” She tossed it to Gammer Beavis, who fumbled it out of the air. “Can you give it back to her tomorrow, Gammer?”

  Gammer nodded, trying not to catch Granny’s eye.

  “Still, we don’t have to let it spoil everything,” Granny said pleasantly. “Let’s have the proper ending to the day, eh? Traditional, like. Roast potatoes and marshmallows and old stories round the fire. And forgiveness. And let’s let bygones be bygones.”

  Nanny could feel the sudden relief spreading out like a fan. The witches seemed to come alive, at the breaking of the spell that had never actually been there in the first place. There was a general straightening up and the beginnings of a bustle as they headed for the saddlebags on their broomsticks.

  “Mr. Hopcroft gave me a whole sack of spuds,” said Nanny, as conversation rose around them. “I’ll go and drag ’em over. Can you get the fire lit, Esme?”

  A sudden change in the air made her look up. Granny’s eyes gleamed in the dusk.

  Nanny knew enough to fling herself to the ground.

  Granny Weatherwax’s hand curved through the air like a comet and the spark flew out, crackling.

  The bonfire exploded. A blue-white flame shot up through the stacked branches and danced into the sky, etching shadows on the forest. It blew off hats and overturned tables and formed figures and castles and scenes from famous battles and joined hands and danced in a ring. It left a purple image on the eye that burned into the brain—

  And settled down, and was just a bonfire.

  “I never said nothin’ about forgettin’,” said Granny.

  * * *

  When Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg walked home through the dawn, their boots kicked up the mist. It had, on the whole, been a good night.

  After some while, Nanny said, “That wasn’t nice, what you done.”

  “I done nothin’.”

  “Yeah, well … it wasn’t nice, what you didn’t do. It was like pullin’ away someone’s chair when they’re expecting to sit down…”

  “People who don’t look where they’re sitting should stay stood up,” said Granny.

  There was a brief pattering on the leaves, one of those very brief showers you get when a few raindrops don’t want to bond with the group.

  “Well, all right,” Nanny conceded. “But it was a little bit cruel.”

  “Right,” said Granny.

  “And some people might think it was a little bit nasty.”

  “Right.”

  Nanny shivered. The thoughts that’d gone through her head in those few seconds after Pewsey had screamed—

  “I gave you no cause,” said Granny. “I put nothin’ in anyone’s head that weren’t there already.”

  “Sorry, Esme.”

  “Right.”

  “But … Letice didn’t mean to be cruel, Esme. I mean, she’s spiteful and bossy and silly, but—”

  “You’ve known me since we was girls, right?” Granny interrupted. “Through thick and thin, good and bad?”

  “Yes, of course, but—”

  “And you never sank to sayin’ ‘I’m telling you this as a friend,’ did you?”

  Nanny shook her head. It was a telling point. No one even remotely friendly would say a thing like that.

  “What’s empowerin’ about witchcraft anyway?” said Granny. “It’s a daft sort of a word.”

  “Search me,” said Nanny. “I did start out in witchcraft to get boys, to tell you the truth.”

  “Think I don’t know that?”

  “What did you start out to get, Esme?”

  Granny stopped, and looked up at the frosty sky and then down at the ground.

  “Dunno,” she said, at last. “Even, I suppose.”

  And that, Nanny thought, was that.

  Deer bounded away as they arrived at Granny’s cottage.

  There was a stack of firewood piled up neatly by the back door, and a couple of sacks on the doorstep. One contained a large cheese.

  “Looks like Mr. Hopcroft and Mr. Poorchick have been here,” said Nanny.

  “Hmph.” Granny looked at the carefully yet badly written piece of paper attached to the second sack: “‘Dear Misftresf Weatherwax, I woud be moft grateful if you woud let
me name thif new championfhip Variety “Efme Weatherwax.” Yours in hopefully good health, Percy Hopcroft.’ Well, well, well. I wonder what gave him that idea?”

  “Can’t imagine,” said Nanny.

  “I would just bet you can’t,” said Granny.

  She sniffed suspiciously, tugged at the sack’s string, and pulled out an Esme Weatherwax.

  It was rounded, very slightly flattened, and pointy at one end. It was an onion.

  Nanny Ogg swallowed. “I told him not—”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Oh … nothing…”

  Granny Weatherwax turned the onion round and round, while the world, via the medium of Nanny Ogg, awaited its fate. Then she seemed to reach a decision she was comfortable with.

  “A very useful vegetable, the onion,” she said, at last. “Firm. Sharp.”

  “Good for the system,” said Nanny.

  “Keeps well. Adds flavor.”

  “Hot and spicy,” said Nanny, losing track of the metaphor in the flood of relief. “Nice with cheese—”

  “We don’t need to go that far,” said Granny Weatherwax, putting it carefully back in the sack. She sounded almost amicable. “You comin’ in for a cup of tea, Gytha?”

  “Er … I’d be getting along—”

  “Fair enough.”

  Granny started to close the door, and then stopped and opened it again. Nanny could see one blue eye watching her through the crack.

  “I was right though, wasn’t I,” said Granny. It wasn’t a question.

  Nanny nodded.

  “Right,” she said.

  “That’s nice.”

  A Wall Street Journal Bestselling Book

  A Publishers Weekly “Best Book of 1998”

  Best Anthology of the Year: Legends

  —Rocky Mountain News

  #3 on “Science Fiction and Fantasy: Top 10 of 1998” List

  —Amazon.com

  “Microcosmic glimpses of broadly imagined worlds and their larger-than-life characters distinguish this hefty volume of heavyweight fantasy.… There’s enough color, vitality, and bravura displays of mythmaking in this rich sampler to sate faithful fans and nurture new readers on the stuff of legends still being created.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “All the writing is of the highest caliber; and each of the tales is compelling. To top it off, artists such as Michael Whelan, Keith Parkinson, and Erik Wilson have contributed illustrations that become icing on the cake. Legends makes for a fine road map to the worlds of masters of the genre and serves as a perfect milestone for future fantasy anthologists. Silverberg has put together an anthology of which he and his fellow writers can be justly proud.”