Witches abroad, p.1

Witches Abroad, page 1

 part  #12 of  Discworld Series

 

Witches Abroad



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Witches Abroad
Page 1

  Once upon a time such a universe was considered unusual and, possibly, impossible.

  But then . . . it used to be so simple, once upon a time.

  Because the universe was full of ignorance all around and the scientist panned through it like a prospector crouched over a mountain stream, looking for the gold of knowledge among the gravel of unreason, the sand of uncertainty and the little whiskery eight-legged swimming things of superstition.

  Occasionally he would straighten up and say things like 'Hurrah, I've discovered Boyle's Third Law. ' And everyone knew where they stood. But the trouble was that ignorance became more interesting, especially big fascinating ignorance about huge and important things like matter and creation, and people stopped patiently building their little houses of rational sticks in the chaos of the universe and started getting interested in the chaos itself - partly because it was a lot easier to be an expert on chaos, but mostly because it made really good patterns that you could put on a t-shirt.

  And instead of getting on with proper science* scientists suddenly went around saying how impossible it was to know anything, and that there wasn't really anything you could call reality to know anything about, and how

  * Like finding that bloody butterfly whose flapping wings cause all these storms we've been having lately and getting it to stop.

  all this was tremendously exciting, and incidentally did you know there were possibly all these little universes all over the place but no-one can see them because they are all curved in on themselves? Incidentally, don't you think this is a rather good t-shirt?

  Compared to all this, a large turtle with a world on its back is practically mundane. At least it doesn't pretend it doesn't exist, and no-one on the Discworld ever tried to prove it didn't exist in case they turned out to be right and found themselves suddenly floating in empty space. This is because the Discworld exists right on the edge of reality. The least little things can break through to the other side. So, on the Discworld, people take things seriously.

  Like stories.

  Because stories are important.

  People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.

  Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.

  Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling . . . stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.

  And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

  This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.

  This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.

  So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods.

  A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

  It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

  Stories don't care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself. *

  It takes a special kind of person to fight back, and become the bicarbonate of history.

  Once upon a time . . .

  Grey hands gripped the hammer and swung it, striking the post so hard that it sank a foot into the soft earth.

  Two more blows and it was fixed immovably.

  From the trees around the clearing the snakes and birds watched silently. In the swamp the alligators drifted like patches of bad-assed water.

  Grey hands took up the crosspiece and fixed it in place, tying it with creepers, pulling them so tight that they creaked.

  She watched him. And then she took up a fragment of mirror and tied it to the top of the post.

  * And people are wrong about urban myths. Logic and reason say that these are fictional creations, retold again and again by people who are hungry for evidence of weird coincidence, natural justice and so on. They aren't. They keep on happening all the time, everywhere, as the stories bounce back and forth across the universe. At any one time hundreds of dead grandmothers are being whisked away on the roof-racks of stolen cars and loyal alsatians are choking on the fingers of midnight burglars. And they're not confined to any one world. Hundreds of female Mercurian jivpts turn four tiny eyes on their rescuers and say, 'My brood-husband will be livid - it was his travel module. ' Urban myths are alive.

  'The coat,' she said.

  He took up the coat and fitted it over the crosspiece. The pole wasn't long enough, so that the last few inches of sleeve draped emptily.

  'And the hat,' she said.

  It was tall, and round, and black. It glistened.

  The piece of mirror gleamed between the darkness of the hat and the coat.

  'Will it work?' he said.

  'Yes,' she said. 'Even mirrors have their reflection. We got to fight mirrors with mirrors. ' She glared up through the trees to a slim white tower in the distance. 'We've got to find her reflection. '

  'It'll have to reach out a long way, then. '

  'Yes. We need all the help we can get. '

  She looked around the clearing.

  She had called upon Mister Safe Way, Lady Bon Anna, Hotaloga Andrews and Stride Wide Man. They probably weren't very good gods.

  But they were the best she'd been able to make.

  This is a story about stories.

  Or what it really means to be a fairy godmother.

  But it's also, particularly, about reflections and mirrors.

  All across the multiverse there are backward tribes* who distrust mirrors and images because, they say, they steal a bit of a person's soul and there's only so much of a person to go around. And the people who wear more clothes say this is just superstition, despite the fact that other people who spend their lives appearing in images of one sort or another seem to develop a thin quality. It's put down to over-work and, tellingly, over-exposure instead.

  Just superstition. But a superstition doesn't have to be wrong.

  * Considered backward, that is, by people who wear more clothes than they do.

  A mirror can suck up a piece of soul. A mirror can contain the reflection of the whole universe, a whole skyful of stars in a piece of silvered glass no thicker than a breath.

  Know about mirrors and you nearly know everything.

  Look into the mirror . . .

  . . . further . . .

  . . . to an orange light on a cold mountaintop, thousands of miles from the vegetable warmth of that swamp . . .

  Local people called it the Bear Mountain. This was because it was a bare mountain, not because it had a lot of bears on it. This caused a certain amount of profitable confusion, though; people often strode into the nearest village with heavy duty crossbows, traps and nets and called haughtily for native guides to lead them to the bears. Since everyone locally was making quite a good living out of this, what with the sale of guide books, maps of bear caves, ornamental cuckoo-clocks with bears on them, bear walking-sticks and cakes baked in the
shape of a bear, somehow no-one had time to go and correct the spelling. *

  It was about as bare as a mountain could be.

  Most of the trees gave out about halfway to the top, only a few pines hanging on to give an effect very similar to die couple of pathetic strands teased across his scalp by a baldie who won't own up.

  It was a place where witches met.

  Tonight a fire gleamed on the very crest of the hill. Dark figures moved in the flickering light.

  * Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Ybi was once cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and relentlessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Ybi are renowned for being unusually short and bad-tempered.

  The moon coasted across a lacework of clouds. Finally, a tall, pointy-hatted figure said, 'You mean everyone brought potato salad?'

  There was one Ramtop witch who was not attending the sabbat. Witches like a night out as much as anyone else but, in this case, she had a more pressing appointment. And it wasn't the kind of appointment you can put off easily.

  Desiderata Hollow was making her will.

  When Desiderata Hollow was a girl, her grandmother had given her four important pieces of advice to guide her young footsteps on the unexpectedly twisting pathway of life.

  They were:

  Never trust a dog with orange eyebrows,

  Always get the young man's name and address,

  Never get between two mirrors,

  And always wear completely clean underwear every day because you never knew when you were going to be knocked down and killed by a runaway horse and if people found you had unsatisfactory underwear on, you'd die of shame.

  And then Desiderata grew up to become a witch. And one of the minor benefits of being a witch is that you know exactly when you're going to die and can wear what underwear you like. *

  That had been eighty years earlier, when the idea of knowing exactly when you were going to die had seemed quite attractive because secretly, of course, you knew you were going to live forever.

  That was then.

  And this was now.

  Forever didn't seem to last as long these days as once it did.

  * Which explains a lot about witches.

  Another log crumbled to ash in the fireplace. Desiderata hadn't bothered to order any fuel for the winter. Not much point, really.

  And then, of course, there was this other thing . . .

  She'd wrapped it up carefully into a long, slim package. Now she folded up the letter, addressed it, and pushed it under the string. Job done.

  She looked up. Desiderata had been blind for thirty years, but this hadn't been a problem. She'd always been blessed, if that was the word, with second sight. So when the ordinary eyes gave out you just trained yourself to see into the present, which anyway was easier than the future. And since the eyeball of the occult didn't depend on light, you saved on candles. There was always a silver lining, if you knew where to look. In a manner of speaking.

  There was a mirror on the wall in front of her.

  The face in it was not her own, which was round and pink.

  It was the face of a woman who was used to giving orders. Desiderata wasn't the sort to give orders. Quite the reverse, in fact.

  The woman said, 'You are dying, Desiderata. '

  'I am that, too. '

  'You've grown old. Your sort always do. Your power is nearly gone. '

  'That's a fact, Lilith,' said Desiderata mildly.

  'So your protection is withdrawing from her. '

  ' 'Fraid so,' said Desiderata.

  'So now it's just me and the evil swamp woman. And I will win. '

  'That's how it seems, I'm afraid. '

  'You should have found a successor. '

  'Never had the time. I'm not the planning sort, you know. '

  The face in the mirror got closer, as if the figure had moved a little nearer to its side of the mirror.

 
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