Equal Rites
by Terry Pratchett

   Thanks to Neil Gaiman, who loaned us the last surviving copy of the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum, and a big hallo to all the kids at the H.P. Lovecraft Holiday Fun Club.
   I would like it to be clearly understood that this book is not wacky. Only dumb redheads in fifties’ sitcoms are wacky.
   No, it’s not zany, either.

   This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.
   It may, however, help to explain why Gandalf never got married and why Merlin was a man. Because this is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense unless the characters get totally beyond the author’s control. They might.
   However, it is primarily a story about a world. Here it comes now. Watch closely, the special effects are quite expensive.
   A bass note sounds. It is a deep, vibrating chord that hints that the brass section may break in at any moment with a fanfare for the cosmos, because the scene is the blackness of deep space with a few stars glittering like the dandruff on the shoulders of God.
   Then it comes into view overhead, bigger than the biggest, most unpleasantly armed starcruiser in the imagination of a three-ring film-maker: a turtle, ten thousand miles long. It is Great A’Tuin, one of the rare astrochelonians from a universe where things are less as they are and more like people imagine them to be, and it carries on its meteor-pocked shell four giant elephants who bear on their enormous shoulders the great round wheel of the Discworld.
   As the viewpoint swings around, the whole of the world can be seen by the light of its tiny orbiting sun. There are continents, archipelagos, seas, deserts, mountain ranges and even a tiny central ice cap. The inhabitants of this place, it is obvious, won’t have any truck with global theories. Their world, bounded by an encircling ocean that falls forever into space in one long waterfall, is as round and flat as a geological pizza, although without the anchovies.
   A world like that, which exists only because the gods enjoy a joke, must be a place where magic can survive. And sex too, of course.
   He came walking through the thunderstorm and you could tell he was a wizard, partly because of the long cloak and careen staff but mainly because the raindrops were stopping several feet from his head, and steaming.
   It was good thunderstorm country, up here in the Ramtop Mountains, a country of jagged peaks, dense forests and little river valleys so deep the daylight had no sooner reached the bottom than it was time to leave again. Ragged wisps of cloud clung to the lesser peaks below the mountain trail along which the wizard slithered and slid. A few slot-eyed goats watched him with mild interest. It doesn’t take a lot to interest goats.
   Sometimes he would stop and throw his heavy staff into the air. It always came down pointing the same way and the wizard would sigh, pick it up, and continue his squelchy progress.
   The storm walked around the hills on legs of lightning, shouting and grumbling.
   The wizard disappeared around the bend in the track and the goats went back to their damp grazing.
   Until something else caused them to look up. They stiffened, their eyes widening, their nostrils flaring.
   This was strange, because there was nothing on the path. But the goats still watched it pass by until it was out of sight.
   There was a village tucked in a narrow valley between steep woods. It wasn’t a large village, and wouldn’t have shown up on a map of the mountains. It barely showed up on a map of the village.
   It was, in fact, one of those places that exist merely so that people can have come from them. The universe is littered with them: hidden villages, windswept little towns under wide skies, isolated cabins on chilly mountains, whose only mark on history is to be the incredibly ordinary place where something extraordinary started to happen. Often there is no more than a little plaque to reveal that, against all ecological probability, someone very famous was born halfway up a wall.
   Mist curled between the houses as the wizard crossed a narrow bridge over the swollen stream and made his way to the village smithy, although the two facts had nothing to do with one another. The mist would have curled anyway: it was experienced mist and had got curling down to a fine art.
   The smithy was fairly crowded, of course. A smithy is one place where you can depend on finding a good fire and someone to talk to. Several villagers were lounging in the warm shadows but, as the wizard approached, they sat up expectantly and tried to look intelligent, generally with indifferent success.
   The smith didn’t feel the need to be quite so subservient. He nodded at the wizard, but it was a greeting between equals, or at least between equals as far as the smith was concerned. After all, any halfway competent blacksmith has more than a nodding acquaintance with magic, or at least likes to think he has.
   The wizard bowed. A white cat that had been sleeping by the furnace woke up and watched him carefully.
   “What is the name of this place, sir?” said the wizard.
   The blacksmith shrugged.
   “Bad Ass,” he said.
   “Ass,” repeated the blacksmith, his tone defying anyone to make something of it.
   The wizard considered this.
   “A name with a story behind it,” he said at last, “which were circumstances otherwise I would be pleased to hear. But I would like to speak to you, smith, about your son.”
   “Which one?” said the smith, and the hangers-on sniggered. The wizard smiled.
   “You have seven sons, do you not? And you yourself were an eighth son?”
   The smith’s face stiffened. He turned to the other villagers.
   “All right, the rain’s stopping,” he said. “Piss off, the lot of you. Me and—” he looked at the wizard with raised eyebrows.
   “Drum Billet,” said the wizard.
   “Me and Mr. Billet have things to talk about.” He waved his hammer vaguely and, one after another, craning over their shoulders in case the wizard did anything interesting, the audience departed.
   The smith drew a couple of stools from under a bench. He took a bottle out of a cupboard by the water tank and poured a couple of very small glasses of clear liquid.
   The two men sat and watched the rain and the mist rolling over the bridge. Then the smith said: “I know what son you mean. Old Granny is up with my wife now. Eighth son of an eighth son, of course. It did cross my mind but I never gave it much thought, to be honest. Well, well. A wizard in the family, eh?”
   “You catch on very quickly,” said Billet. The white cat jumped down from its perch, sauntered across the floor and vaulted into the wizard’s lap, where it curled up. His thin fingers stroked it absentmindedly.
   “Well, well,” said the smith again. “A wizard in Bad Ass, eh?”
   “Possibly, possibly,” said Billet. “Of course, he’ll have to go to University first. He may do very well, of course.”
   The smith considered the idea from all angles, and decided he liked it a lot. A thought struck him.
   “Hang on,” he said. “I’m trying to remember what my father told me. A wizard who knows he’s going to die can sort of pass on his sort of wizardness to a sort of successor, right?”
   “I have never heard it put so succinctly, yes,” said the wizard.
   “So you’re going to sort of die?”
   “Oh yes.” The cat purred as the fingers tickled it behind the ear.
   The smith looked embarrassed. “When?”
   The wizard thought for a moment. “In about six minutes’ time.”
   “Don’t worry,” said the wizard. “I’m quite looking forward to it, to tell you the truth. I’ve heard it’s quite painless.”
   The blacksmith considered this. “Who told you?” he said at last.
   The wizard pretended not to hear him. He was watching the bridge, looking for tell-tale turbulence in the mist.
   “Look,” said the smith. “You’d better tell me how we go about bringing up a wizard, you see, because there isn’t a wizard in these parts and—” .
   “It will all sort itself out,” said Billet pleasantly. “The magic has guided me to you and the magic will take care of everything. It usually does. Did I hear a cry?”
   The blacksmith looked at the ceiling. Above the splash of the rain he could make out the sound of a pair of new lungs at full bore.
   The wizard smiled. “Have him brought down here,” he said.
   The cat sat up and looked interestedly at the forge’s wide doorway. As the smith called excitedly up the stairs it jumped down and padded slowly across the floor, purring like a bandsaw.
   A tall white-haired woman appeared at the bottom of the stairs, clutching a bundle in a blanket. The smith hurried her over to where the wizard sat.
   “But—”she began.
   “This is very important,” said the smith importantly. “What do we do now, sir?”
   The wizard held up his staff. It was man-high and nearly as thick as his wrist, and covered with carvings that seemed to change as the smith looked at them, exactly as if they didn’t want him to see what they were.
   “The child must hold it,” said Drum Billet. The smith nodded, and fumbled in the blanket until he located a tiny pink hand. He guided it gently to the wood. It gripped it tightly.
   “But—”said the midwife.
   “It’s all right, Granny, I know what I’m about. She’s a witch, sir, don’t mind her. Right,” said the smith. “Now what?”
   The wizard was silent.
   “What do we don—”the smith began, and stopped. He leaned down to look at the old wizard’s face. Billet was smiling, but it was anyone’s guess what the joke was.
   The smith pushed the baby back into the arms of the frantic midwife. Then, as respectfully as possible, he unpried the thin, pale fingers from the staff.
   It had a strange, greasy feel, like static electricity. The wood itself was almost black, but the carvings were slightly lighter, and hurt the eyes if you tried to make out precisely what they were supposed to be.
   “Are you pleased with yourself?” said the midwife.
   “Eh? Oh. Yes. As a matter of fact, yes. Why?”
   She twitched aside a fold of the blanket. The smith looked down, and swallowed.
   “No,” he whispered. “He said—”
   “And what would he know about it?” sneered Granny.
   “But he said it would be a son!”
   “Doesn’t look like a son to me, laddie.”
   The smith flopped down on his stool, his head in his hands.
   “What have I done?” he moaned.
   “You’ve given the world its first female wizard,” said the midwife. “Whosa itsywitsy, den?”
   “I was talking to the baby.”
   The white cat purred and arched its back as if it was rubbing up against the legs of an old friend. Which was odd, because there was no one there.
   “I was foolish,” said a voice in tones no mortal could hear. “I assumed the magic would know what it was doing.”
   “If only I could do something . . . .”
   THERE IS NO GOING BACK. THERE IS NO GOING BACK, said the deep, heavy voice like the closing of crypt doors.
   The wisp of nothingness that was Drum Billet thought for a while.
   “But she’s going to have a lot of problems.”
   “What about reincarnation?”
   Death hesitated.
   “I’ve heard that some people do it all the time.”
   “It’s bad?”
   The baby had been taken back to its mother and the smith sat disconsolately watching the rain.
   Drum Billet scratched the cat behind its ears and thought about his life. It had been a long one, that was one of the advantages of being a wizard, and he’d done a lot of things he hadn’t always felt good about. It was about time that ….
   I HAVEN’T GOT ALL DAY, YOU KNOW, said Death, reproachfully.
   The wizard looked down at the cat and realized for the first time how odd it looked now.
   The living often don’t appreciate how complicated the world looks when you are dead, because while death frees the mind from the straitjacket of three dimensions it also cuts it away from Time, which is only another dimension. So while the cat that rubbed up against his invisible legs was undoubtedly the same cat that he had seen a few minutes before, it was also quite clearly a tiny kitten and a fat, half-blind old moggy and every stage in between. All at once. Since it had started off small it looked like a white, catshaped carrot, a description that will have to do until people invent proper four-dimensional adjectives.
   Death’s skeletal hand tapped Billet gently on the shoulder.
   “There’s nothing I can do?”
   “Yes. There is that.”
   The midwife’s name was Granny Weatherwax. She was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.
   The smith was still staring gloomily at the rain when she came back down the stairs and clapped a warty hand on his shoulder.
   He looked up at her.
   “What shall I do, Granny?” he said, unable to keep the pleading out of his voice.
   “What have you done with the wizard?”
   “I put him out in the fuel store. Was that right?”
   “It’ll do for now,” she said briskly. “And now you must burn the staff.”
   They both turned to stare at the heavy staff, which the smith had propped in the forge’s darkest corner. It almost appeared to be looking back at them.
   “But it’s magical,” he whispered.
   “Will it burn?”
   “Never knew wood that didn’t.”
   “It doesn’t seem right!”
   Granny Weatherwax swung shut the big doors and turned to him angrily.
   “Now you listen to me, Gordo Smith!” she said. “Female wizards aren’t right either! It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?”
   “There’s witches,” said the smith uncertainly. “And enchantresses too, I’ve heard.”
   “Witches is a different thing altogether,” snapped Granny Weatherwax. “It’s magic out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men never could get the hang of it. As for enchantresses,” she added. “They’re no better than they should be. You take it from me, just burn the staff, bury the body and don’t let on it ever happened.”
   Smith nodded reluctantly, crossed over to the forge, and pumped the bellows until the sparks flew. He went back for the staff.
   It wouldn’t move.
   “It won’t move!”
   Sweat stood out of his brow as he tugged at the wood. It remained unco-operatively immobile.
   “Here, let me try,” said Granny, and reached past him. There was a snap and a smell of scorched tin.
   Smith ran across the forge, whimpering slightly, to where Granny had landed upside down against the opposite wall.
   “Are you all right?”
   She opened two eyes like angry diamonds and said, “I see. That’s the way of it, is it?”
   “The way of what?” said Smith, totally bewildered.
   “Help me up, you fool. And fetch me a chopper.”
   The tone of her voice suggested that it would be a very good idea not to disobey. Smith rummaged desperately among the junk at the back of the forge until he found an old double-headed axe.
   “Right. Now take off your apron.”
   “Why? What do you intend to do?” said the smith, who was beginning to lose his grip on events. Granny gave an exasperated sigh.
   “It’s leather, you idiot. I’m going to wrap it around the handle. It’ll not catch me the same way twice!”
   Smith struggled out of the heavy leather apron and handed it to her very gingerly. She wrapped it around the axe and made one or two passes in the air. Then, a spiderlike figure in the glow of the nearly incandescent furnace, she stalked across the room and with a grunt of triumph and effort brought the heavy blade sweeping down right in the center of the staff.
   There was a click. There was a noise like a partridge. There was a thud.
   There was silence.
   Smith reached up very slowly, without moving his head, and touched the axe blade. It wasn’t on the axe any more. It had buried itself in the door by his head, taking a tiny nick out of his ear.
   Granny stood looking slightly blurred from hitting an absolutely immovable object, and stared at the stub of wood in her hands.
   “Rrrrightttt,” she stuttered: “Iiiinnn tthhatttt cccasseee—”
   “No,” said Smith firmly, rubbing his ear. “Whatever it is you’re going to suggest, no. Leave it. I’ll pile some stuff around it. No one’ll notice. Leave it. It’s just a stick.”
   “Just a stick?”
   “Have you got any better ideas? Ones that won’t take my head off?”
   She glared at the staff, which appeared not to notice.
   “Not right now,” she admitted. “But you just give me time—”
   “All right, all right. Anyway, I’ve got things to do, wizards to bury, you know how it is.”
   Smith took a spade from beside the back door and hesitated.
   “Do you know how wizards like to be buried?”
   “Yes! ”
   “Well, how?”
   Granny Weatherwax paused at the bottom of the stairs.
   Later, night fell gently as the last of the world’s slow light flowed out of the valley, and a pale, rain-washed moon shone down in a night studded with stars. And in a shadowy orchard behind the forge there was the occasional clink of a spade or a muffled curse.
   In the cradle upstairs the world’s first female wizard dreamed of nothing much.
   The white cat lay half-asleep on its private ledge near the furnace. The only sound in the warm dark forge was the crackle of the coals as they settled down under the ash.
   The staff stood in the corner, where it wanted to be, wrapped in shadows that were slightly blacker than shadows normally are.
   Time passed, which, basically, is its job.
   There was a faint tinkle, and a swish of air. After a while the cat sat up and watched with interest.
   Dawn came. Up here in the Ramtops dawn was always impressive, especially when a storm had cleared the air. The valley occupied by Bad Ass overlooked a panorama of lesser mountains and foothills, coloured purple and orange in the early morning light that flowed gently over them (because light travels at a dilatory pace in the Disc’s vast magical field) and far off the great plains were still a puddle of shadows. Even further off the sea gave an occasional distant sparkle.
   In fact, from here you could see right to the edge of the world.
   That wasn’t poetic imagery but plain fact, since the world was quite definitely flat and was, furthermore, known to be carried through space on the backs of four elephants that in turn stood on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the Great Sky Turtle.
   Back down there in Bad Ass the village is waking up. The smith has just gone into the forge and found it tidier than it has been for the last hundred years, with all the tools back in their right places, the floor swept and a new fire laid in the furnace. He is sitting on the anvil, which has been moved right across the room, and is watching the staff and is trying to think.
   Nothing much happened for seven years, except that one of the apple trees in the smithy orchard grew perceptibly taller than the others and was frequently climbed by a small girl with brown hair, a gap in her front teeth, and the sort of features that promised to become, if not beautiful, then at least attractively interesting.
   She was named Eskarina, for no particular reason other than that her mother liked the sound of the word, and although Granny Weatherwax kept a careful watch on her she failed to spot any signs of magic whatsoever. It was true that the girl spent more time climbing trees and running around shouting than little girls normally did, but a girl with four older brothers still at home can be excused a lot of things. In fact, the witch began to relax and started to think the magic had not taken hold after all.
   But magic has a habit of lying low, like a rake in the grass.
   Winter came round again, and it was a bad one. The clouds hung around the Ramtops like big fat sheep, filling the gulleys with snow and turning the forests into silent, gloomy caverns. The high passes were closed and the caravans wouldn’t come again until spring. Bad Ass became a little island of heat and light.
   Over breakfast Esk’s mother said: “I’m worried about Granny Weatherwax. She hasn’t been around lately.”
   Smith looked at her over his porridge spoon.
   “I’m not complaining,” he said. “She—”
   “She’s got a long nose,” said Esk.
   Her parents glared at her.
   “There’s no call to make that kind of remark,” said her mother sternly.
   “But father said she’s always poking her—”
   “But he said—”
   “I said—”
   “Yes, but, he did say that she had—”
   Smith reached down and slapped her. It wasn’t very hard, and he regretted it instantly. The boys got the flat of his hand and occasionally the length of his belt whenever they deserved it. The trouble with his daughter, though, was not ordinary naughtiness but the infuriating way she had of relentlessly pursuing the thread of an argument long after she should have put it down. It always flustered him.
   She burst into tears. Smith stood up, angry and embarrassed at himself, and stumped off to the forge.
   There was a loud crack, and a thud.
   They found him out cold on the floor. Afterwards he always maintained that he’d hit his head on the doorway. Which was odd, because he wasn’t very tall and there had always been plenty of room before, but he was certain that whatever happened had nothing to do with the blur of movement from the forge’s darkest corner.
   Somehow the events set the seal on the day. It became a broken crockery day, a day of people getting under each other’s feet and being peevish. Esk’s mother dropped a jug that had belonged to her grandmother and a whole box of apples in the loft turned out to be moldy. In the forge the furnace went sullen and refused to draw. Jaims, the oldest son, slipped on the packed ice in the road and hurt his arm. The white cat, or possibly one of its descendants, since the cats led a private and complicated life of their own in the hayloft next to the forge, went and climbed up the chimney in the scullery and refused to come down. Even the sky pressed in like an old mattress, and the air felt stuffy, despite the snow.
   Frayed nerves and boredom and bad temper made the air hum like thunderstorm weather.
   “Right! That’s it. That’s just about enough!” shouted Esk’s mother. “Cern, you and Gulta and Esk can go and see how Granny is and -where’s Esk?”
   The two youngest boys looked up from where they were halfheartedly fighting under the table.
   “She went out to the orchard,” said Gulta. “Again.”
   “Go and fetch her in, then, and be off.”
   “But it’s cold!”
   “It’s going to snow again!”
   “It’s only a mile and the road is clear enough and who was so keen to be out in it when we had the first snowfall? Go on with you, and don’t come back till you’re in a better temper.”
   They found Esk sitting in a fork of the big apple tree. The boys didn’t like the tree much. For one thing, it was so covered in mistletoe that it looked green even in midwinter, its fruit was small and went from stomach-twisting sourness to wasp-filled rottenness overnight, and although it looked easy enough to climb it had a habit of breaking twigs and dislodging feet at inconvenient moments. Cern once swore that a branch had twisted just to spill him off. But it tolerated Esk, who used to go and sit in it if she was annoyed or fed up or just wanted to be by herself, and the boys sensed that every brother’s right to gently torture his sister ended at the foot of its trunk. So they threw a snowball at her. It missed.
   “We’re going to see old Weatherwax.”
   “But you don’t have to come.”
   “Because you’ll just slow us down and probably cry anyway.”
   Esk looked down at them solemnly. She didn’t cry a lot, it never seemed to achieve much.
   “If you don’t want me to come then I’ll come,” she said. This sort of thing passes for logic among siblings.
   “Oh, we want you to come,” said Gulta quickly.
   “Very pleased to hear it,” said Esk, dropping on to the packed snow.
   They had a basket containing smoked sausages, preserved eggs and—because their mother was prudent as well as generous—a large jar of peach preserve that no one in the family liked very much. She still made it every year when the little wild peaches were ripe, anyway.
   The people of Bad Ass had learned to live with the long winter snows and the roads out of the village were lined with boards to reduce drifting and, more important, stop travellers from straying. If they lived locally it wouldn’t matter too much if they did, because an unsung genius on the village council several generations previously had come up with the idea of carving markers in every tenth tree in the forest around the village, out to a distance of nearly two miles. It had taken ages, and re-cutting markers was always a job for any man with spare time, but in winters where a blizzard could lose a man within yards of his home many a life had been saved by the pattern of notches found by probing fingers under the clinging snow.
   It was snowing again when they left the road and started up the track where, in summer, the witch’s house nestled in a riot of raspberry thickets and weird witch-growth.
   “No footprints,” said Cern.
   “Except for foxes,” said Gulta. “They say she can turn herself into a fox. Or anything. A bird, even. Anything. That’s how she always knows what’s going on.”
   They looked around cautiously. A scruffy crow was indeed watching them from a distant tree stump.
   “They say there’s a whole family over Crack Peak way that can turn themselves into wolves,” said Gulta, who wasn’t one to leave a promising subject, “because one night someone shot a wolf and next day their auntie was limping with an arrow wound in her leg, and ….
   “I don’t think people can turn themselves into animals,” said Esk, slowly.
   “Oh yes, Miss Clever?”
   “Granny is quite big. If she turned herself into a fox what would happen to all the bits that wouldn’t fit?”
   “She’d just magic them away,” said Cern.
   “I don’t think magic works like that,” said Esk. “You can’t just make things happen, there’s a sort of—like a seesaw thing, if you push one end down, the other end goes up . . . .” Her voice trailed off.
   They gave her a look.
   “I can’t see Granny on a seesaw,” said Gulta. Cern giggled.
   “No, I mean every time something happens, something else has to happen too—I think,” said Esk uncertainly, picking her way around a deeper than usual snowdrift. “Only in the . . . opposite direction.”
   “That’s silly,” said Gulta, “because, look, you remember when that fair came last summer and there was a wizard with it and he made all those birds and things appear out of nothing? I mean it just happened, he just said these words and waved his hands, and it just happened. There weren’t any seesaws.”
   “There was a swing,” said Cern. “And a thing where you had to throw things at things to win things.”
   “And you didn’t hit anything, Gul.”
   “Nor did you, you said the things were stuck to the things so you couldn’t knock them off, you said . . . .”
   Their conversation wandered away like a couple of puppies. Esk listened with half an ear. I know what I mean, she told herself. Magic’s easy, you just find the place where everything is balanced and push. Anyone could do it. There’s nothing magical about it. All the funny words and waving the hands is just . . . it’s only for….
   She stopped, surprised at herself. She knew what she meant. The idea was right up there in the front of her mind. But she didn’t know how to say it in words, even to herself.
   It was a horrible feeling to find things in your head and not know how they fitted. It….
   “Come on, we’ll be all day.”
   She shook her head and hurried after her brothers.
   The witch’s cottage consisted of so many extensions and lean-tos that it was difficult to see what the original building had looked like, or even if there had ever been one. In the summer it was surrounded by dense beds of what Granny loosely called “the Herbs”—strange plants, hairy or squat or twining, with curious flowers or vivid fruits or unpleasantly bulging pods. Only Granny knew what they were all for, and any woodpigeon hungry enough to attack them generally emerged giggling to itself and bumping into things (or, sometimes, never emerged at all.
   Now everything was deep under the snow. A forlorn windsock flapped against its pole. Granny didn’t hold with flying but some of her friends still used broomsticks.
   “It looks deserted,” said Cem.
   “No smoke,” said Gulta.
   The windows look like eyes, thought Esk, but kept it to herself.
   “It’s only Granny’s house,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong.”
   The cottage radiated emptiness. They could feel it. The windows did look like eyes, black and menacing against the snow. And no one in the Ramtops let their fire go out in the winter, as a matter of pride.
   Esk wanted to say “Let’s go home,” but she knew that if she did the boys would run for it. Instead she said, “Mother says there’s a key on a nail in the privy,” and that was nearly as bad. Even an ordinary unknown privy held minor terrors like wasps’ nests, large spiders, mysterious rustling things in the roof and, one very bad winter, a small hibernating bear that caused acute constipation in the family until it was persuaded to bed down in the haybam. A witch’s privy could contain anything.
   “I’ll go and look, shall I?” she added.
   “If you like,” said Gulta airily, almost successfully concealing his relief.
   In fact, when she managed to get the door open against the piled snow, it was neat and clean and contained nothing more sinister than an old almanac, or more precisely about half an old almanac, carefully hung on a nail. Granny had a philosophical objection to reading, but she’d be the last to say that books, especially books with nice thin pages, didn’t have their uses.
   The key shared a ledge by the door with a chrysalis and the stump of a candle. Esk took it gingerly, trying not to disturb the chrysalis, and hurried back to the boys.
   It was no use trying the front door. Front doors in Bad Ass were used only by brides and corpses, and Granny had always avoided becoming either. Around the back the snow was piled in front of the door and no one had broken the ice on the water butt.
   The light was starting to pour out of the sky by the time they dug through to the door and managed to persuade the key to turn.
   Inside, the big kitchen was dark and chilly and smelled only of snow. It was always dark, but they were used to seeing a big fire in the wide chimney and smelling the thick fumes of whatever it was she was boiling up this time, which sometimes gave you a headache or made you see things.
   They wandered around uncertainly, calling, until Esk decided they couldn’t put off going upstairs any longer. The clonk of the thumb-latch on the door to the cramped staircase sounded a lot louder than it ought to.
   Granny was on the bed, with her arms tightly folded across her chest. The tiny window had blown open. Fine snow had blown in across the floor and over the bed.
   Esk stared at the patchwork quilt under the old woman, because there were times when a little detail could expand and fill the whole world. She barely heard Cern start to cry: she remembered lien father, strangely enough, making the quilt two winters before when the snow was almost as bad and there wasn’t much to do in the forge, and how he’d used all kinds of rags that had found their way to Bad Ass from every part of the world, like silk, dilemma leather, water cotton and tharga wool and, of course, since he wasn’t much good at sewing either, the result was a rather strange lumpy thing more like a flat tortoise than a quilt, and her mother had generously decided to give it to Granny last Hogswatchnight, and ….
   “Is she dead?” asked Gulta, as if Esk was an expert in these things.
   Esk stared up at Granny Weatherwax. The old woman’s face looked thin and grey. Was that how dead people looked? Shouldn’t her chest be going up and down?
   Gulta pulled himself together.
   “We ought to go and get someone and we ought to go now because it will get dark in a minute,” he said flatly. “But Cern will stay here.”
   His brother looked at him in horror.
   “What for?” he said.
   “Someone has got to stay with dead people,” said Gulta. “Remember when old Uncle Derghart died and Father had to go and sit up with all the candles and things all night? Otherwise something nasty comes and takes your soul off to . . . to somewhere,” he ended lamely. “And then people come back and haunt you.”
   Cern opened his mouth to start to cry again. Esk said hurriedly, “I’ll stay. I don’t mind. It’s only Granny.”
   Gulta looked at her in relief.
   “Light some candles or something,” he said. “I think that’s what you’re supposed to do. And then—”
   There was a scratching from the windowsill. A crow had landed, and stood there blinking suspiciously at them. Gulta shouted and threw his hat at it. It flew off with a reproachful caw and he shut the window.
   “I’ve seen it around here before,” he said. “I think Granny feeds it. Fed it,” he corrected himself. “Anyway, we’ll be back with people, we’ll be hardly any time. Come on, Ce.”
   They clattered down the dark stairs. Esk saw them out of the house and bolted the door behind them.
   The sun was a red ball above the mountains, and there were already a few early stars out.
   She wandered around the dark kitchen until she found a scrap of dip candle and a tinderbox. After a great deal of effort she managed to light the candle and stood it on the table, although it didn’t really light the room, it simply peopled the darkness with shadows. Then she found Granny’s rocking chair by the cold fireplace, and settled down to wait.
   Time passed. Nothing happened.
   Then there was a tapping at the window. Esk took up the candle stub and peered through the thick round panes.
   A beady yellow eye blinked back at her.
   The candle guttered, and went out.
   She stood stock still, hardly breathing. The tapping started again, and then stopped. There was a short silence, and then the doorlatch rattled.
   Something nasty comes, the boys had said.
   She felt her way back across the room until she nearly tripped over the rocking chair, and dragged it back and wedged it as best she could in front of the door. The latch gave a final clonk and went silent.
   Esk waited, listening until the silence roared in her ears. Then something started to bang against the little window in the scullery, softly but insistently. After a while it stopped. A moment later it started again in the bedroom above her— a faint scrabbling noise, a claw kind of noise.
   Esk felt that bravery was called for, but on a night like this bravery lasted only as long as a candle stayed alight. She felt her way back across the dark kitchen, eyes tightly shut, until she reached the door.
   There was a thump from the fireplace as a big lump of soot fell down, and when she heard the desperate scratchings coming from the chimney she slipped the bolts, threw open the door and darted out into the night.
   The cold struck like a knife. Frost had put a crust on the snow. She didn’t care where she was going, but quiet terror gave her a burning determination to get there as fast as she could.
   Inside the cottage the crow landed heavily in the fireplace, surrounded by soot and muttering irritably to itself. It hopped into the shadows, and a moment later there was the bang of the latch of the stairway door and the sound of fluttering on the stairs.
   Esk reached up as high as she could and felt around the tree for the marker. This time she was lucky, but the pattern of dots and grooves told her she was over a mile from the village and had been running in the wrong direction.
   There was a cheese-rind moon and a sprinkling of stars, small and bright and pitiless. The forest around her was a pattern of black shadows and pale snow and, she was aware, not all the shadows were standing still.
   Everyone knew there were wolves in the mountains, because on some nights their howls echoed down from the high Tops, but they seldom came near the village—the modern wolves were the offspring of ancestors that had survived because they had learned that human meat had sharp edges.
   But the weather was hard, and this pack was hungry enough to forget all about natural selection.
   Esk remembered what all the children were told. Climb a tree. Light a fire. When all else fails, find a stick and at least hurt them. Never try to outrun them.
   The tree behind her was a beech, smooth and unclimbable.
   Esk watched a long shadow detach itself from a pool of darkness in front of her, and move a little closer. She knelt down, tired, frightened, unable to think, and scrabbled under the burning-cold snow for a stick.
   Granny Weatherwax opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, which was cracked and bulged like a tent.
   She concentrated on remembering that she had arms, not wings, and didn’t need to hop. It was always wise to lie down for a bit after a borrow, to let one’s mind get used to one’s body, but she knew she didn’t have the time.
   “Drat the child,” she muttered, and tried to fly on to the bedrail. The crow, who had been through all this dozens of times before and who considered, insofar as birds can consider anything, which is a very short distance indeed, that a steady diet of bacon rinds and choice kitchen scraps and a warm roost for the night was well worth the occasional inconvenience of letting Granny share its head, watched her with mild interest.
   Granny found her boots and thumped down the stairs, sternly resisting the urge to glide. The door was wide open and there was already a drift of fine snow on the floor.
   “Oh, bugger,” she said. She wondered if it was worth trying to find Esk’s mind, but human minds were never so sharp and clear as animal minds and anyway the overmind of the forest itself made impromptu searching as hard as listening for a waterfall in a thunderstorm. But even without looking she could feel the packmind of the wolves, a sharp, rank feeling that filled the mouth with the taste of blood.
   She could just make out the small footprints in the crust, half filled with fresh snow. Cursing and muttering, Granny Weatherwax pulled her shawl around her and set out.
   The white cat awoke from its private ledge in the forge when it heard the sounds coming from the darkest corner. Smith had carefully shut the big doors behind him when he went off with the nearly-hysterical boys, and the cat watched with interest as a thin shadow prodded at the lock and tested the hinges.
   The doors were oak, hardened by heat and time, but that didn’t prevent them being blown right across the street.
   Smith heard a sound in the sky as he hurried along the track. So did Granny. It was a determined whirring sound, like the flight of geese, and the snowclouds boiled and twisted as it passed.
   The wolves heard it, too, as it spun low over the treetops and hurtled down into the clearing. But they heard it far too late.
   Granny Weatherwax didn’t have to follow the footprints now. She aimed herself for the distant flashes of weird light, the strange swishing and thumping, and the howls of pain and terror. A couple of wolves bolted past her with their ears flattened in grim determination to have it away on their paws no matter what stood in their way.
   There was the crackle of breaking branches. Something big and heavy landed in a fir tree by Granny and crashed, whimpering, into the snow. Another wolf passed her in a flat trajectory at about head height and bounced off a tree-trunk.
   There was silence.
   Granny pushed her way between the snow-covered branches.
   She could see that the snow was flattened in a white circle. A few wolves lay at its edges, either dead or wisely deciding to make no move.
   The staff stood upright in the snow and Granny got the feeling it was turning to face her as she walked carefully past it.
   There was also a small heap in the centre of the circle, curled tightly up inside itself. Granny knelt down with some effort and reached out gently.
   The staff moved. It was little more than a tremble, but her hand stopped just before it touched Esk’s shoulder. Granny glared up at the wooden carvings, and dared it to move again.
   The air thickened. Then the staff seemed to back away while not moving, while at the same time something quite indefinable made it absolutely clear to the old witch that as far as the staff was concerned this -wasn’t a defeat, it was merely a tactical consideration, and it wouldn’t like her to think she had won in any way, because she hadn’t.
   Esk gave a shudder. Granny patted her vaguely.
   “It’s me, little one. It’s only old Granny.”
   The hump didn’t uncurl.
   Granny bit her lip. She was never quite certain about children, thinking of them—when she thought about them at all—as coming somewhere between animals and people. She understood babies. You put milk in one end and kept the other end as clean as possible. Adults were even easier, because they did the feeding and cleaning themselves. But in between was a world of experience that she had never really enquired about. As far as she was aware, you just tried to stop them catching anything fatal and hoped that it would all turn out all right.
   Granny, in fact, was at a loss, but she knew she had to do something.
   “Didda nasty wolfie fwiten us, den?” she hazarded.
   For quite the wrong reasons, this seemed to work. From the depths of the ball a muffled voice said: “I am eight, you know.”
   “People who are eight don’t curl up in the middle of the snow,” said Granny, feeling her way through the intricacies of adult-child conversation.
   The ball didn’t answer.
   “I’ve probably got some milk and biscuits at home,” Granny ventured.
   There was no perceptible effect.
   “Eskarina Smith, if you don’t behave this minute I will give you such a smack!”